Son Chang-kyung, 64, speaks to reporters in Seoul (Photo by Douglas Vautour)
Like so many South Koreans, Son Chang-kyung grew up in a Christian household.
But it wasn’t long before he became disillusioned with the faith in a country known for having the largest single church congregation in the world.
“I studied in a Christian household, but there is severe discrimination in Korean Christianity. Pastors would treat poor and rich students differently,” the 64-year-old Son said.
Son ultimately left the faith — not for Buddhism, South Korea’s second religion, or a secular life. Instead, he converted to Islam, inspired by a move to Saudi Arabia for work almost 40 years ago.
“I thought that Islam was equal. Even when people of high status would visit, they would bow and eat just the same,” said Son in an interview at Seoul Central Mosque, where he now works.
Son, who also goes by “Yusup,” is one of a small subset of Koreans to have taken the unlikely path of converting to Islam in a society long dominated by other faiths and the absence of faith.
In 2010, 29 percent of Koreans considered themselves Christian, while 23 percent proclaimed to be Buddhist, according to the Pew Research Center. Forty-six percent expressed no religious affiliation at all.
Muslims account for just 0.3 percent of the population, or some 150,000 people, most of them foreign-born, according to Kwon Jee-yun, chief researcher at Torch Trinity Center for Islamic Studies in Seoul. It’s unclear how many ethnic Koreans are among them, although the Korea Muslim Federation estimates that they number more than 50,000.
“There isn’t exact data in Korea anywhere because it’s not representative,” Kwon said.
Seoul Central Mosque (Photo by Douglas Vautour)
Islam was first introduced to Koreans in the 9th century by Persian and Arab traders, many of whom settled permanently on the peninsula. The arrival of the staunchly Confucian Joseon period in the 14th century, however, “virtually obliterated” any trace of Islam, according to a historical overview published by the country’s embassy in Sudan.
The modern revival of the faith was kickstarted in the early 1950s by the arrival of Turkish soldiers to fight in the Korean War under the banner of the United Nations. An influx of migrants from South Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries in recent decades has since boosted the Muslim population, which grew almost five-fold between 2001 and 2011, according to Kwon.
Kwon said the biggest reason Koreans convert today is because of marriages with Muslim immigrants.
“They convert naturally, and then of course their children are Muslim,” she said.
Despite initial resistance, Son managed to convince his entire immediate family to accept the religion.
“I lived a religious life [according to Islam] for several decades and found that there were many ways in which it didn’t match with Korean society, but I overcame that. I made a lot of effort during that time and my family and children all converted. Even though my children are all married, they’ve all converted.”
But in a society where Islam is still largely unfamiliar, some Korean Muslims complain of misconceptions and prejudice.
Park Dong-sik, a Korean convert who promotes the religion through a prominent online presence, declined to be interviewed, complaining of Internet harassment since the rise of Islamic State.
Kim, a Korean convert who asked not to be identified by her real name, said Koreans often fail to distinguish between militant groups such as IS and the religion of Islam.
The woman, who lives in the United Arab Emirates with her husband, added that Koreans’ negative view of Islam extends beyond recent displays of shocking violence in the Middle East, or attacks on Western targets.
“Korea has no state religion and normally there is a xenophobia-like revulsion toward strangers,” said Kim. “Especially because crimes committed by Muslims, who come as migrant workers, are rising, the revulsion toward Islam is getting stronger.”
She said she also had a distorted view of the faith before her conversion, particularly regarding Islam’s treatment of women. But despite the inferior legal status of women in many Muslim-majority nations, she now sees women’s rights as central to the faith.
“I became convinced that it would be great guidance for me while living my life as a woman,” she said. “So in 2009, I accepted the Muslim faith and became a Muslim.”
The fear of prejudice is perhaps part of the reason both Son and Kim say that many Korean converts don’t openly practice their faith, even though their numbers are rising.
“In reality, the number of Koreans converting is rising bit by bit,” said Kim. “[But] simply because they think it could cause problems while living in Korean society, most of them don’t reveal they are Muslim.”
But whether or not attitudes soften, it seems inevitable the number of Korean Muslims will continue to grow.
“Before, not many people came to the mosque,” said Son. “But this year, 7,000 people have been coming on Fridays usually, and 10,000 come on Ramadan.”