In July 2017, during the first semiannual general meeting for the Seoul Foreign Residents Council, a proposal was submitted to provide a prayer room for Muslims in Seoul City Hall. Since its founding in December 2015, the council has met every half year for members to propose policies. At the July meeting, 11 policies were proposed, including improvements on maps and signage, relaxtion of bank balance requirments for foreign students, and the creation of that Muslim prayer room.
“I didn’t know that there would be such strong opposition. The comments made me extremely sad.” A, who attended the council meeting, was hurt by the adverse reaction they encountered both on and offline in the aftermath of the media reports. News articles on web portals received hundreds of comments, from taunts like “Go home and pray all you want” to criticisms like “We don’t want Muslims to freely use the city halls in our country”.
For a month, hundreds of calls poured in to the council’s department for operations and support. B, an employee in the department, explained: “We received so many calls opposing the installation of a prayer room that it was impossible to do other work. People who were filing complaints shared our department’s phone number on their group chat room, and many called in to protest.”
“It doesn’t take a lot of money or space to create a prayer room,” said A, who has been participating in the policy suggestion process since before the council was established. “The policy was proposed to resolve the inconveniences that my Muslim friends were having, since there aren’t many prayer rooms to accommodate the increasing number of Muslims in Korea.” Muslims pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca, their holy city in Saudi Arabia. A mosque is not essential for these prayers. Muslims can pray in other quiet and clean places, and without interrupting others.
While Chinese tourism has declined since China’s backlash against Korea’s installation of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), Muslim tourists from Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have filled the void, riding on the Korean Wave. However, expansion of convenience facilities for Muslims has proven difficult. Organized opposition by certain religious groups, which promote religious bias as well as misconceptions about Islam, are major impediments.
The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) announced on April 1 that a total of 865,910 Muslim tourists visited Korea in the past year. This represented a slight decrease from 985,858 the previous year, but the number is expected to exceed one million this year due to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the Korean Wave.
Muslims visiting Korea divide into largely two groups: those from Southeast Asia and Central Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan, where people have favorable views of Korea thanks to TV dramas and K-pop, and those from the Middle East, who have high spending power but low awareness of Korea. Recognizing 1.7 billion Muslims around the world as a potential tourism resource, the KTO has expanded the infrastructure for Muslim tourists, even certifying certain restaurants as ‘Muslim-friendly’.
In February, Seoul established the “Detailed Plan for Improving Convenience for Foreign Visitors to Korea” to create prayer rooms in major tourist attractions for Muslims travelers. With a budget of KRW 200 million, Seoul planned to install prayer rooms in tourist information centers and private facilities in Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, Itaewon, and other neighborhoods frequented by Muslim tourists. However, since the disclosure of the plan to the public, some Protestant organizations have opposed it on the grounds that the city was supporting one religion over others. As a result, the creation of prayer rooms has been temporarily suspended. One Korean citizen even reported the installation of prayer rooms to the Wasteful Budget Spending Report Center on the e-People website. A Seoul city official explained that the city had reviewed the project to increase the convenience for the rising numbers of Muslim tourists to Korea. “We planned to establish prayer rooms for everyone,” he added, “but the opposition was so strong that the city had to postpone the project.”
The plan to install a prayer room for Muslim athletes competing in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics fell through due to opposition from certain Protestant organizations. With messaging like “Let us show them the power of the army of God”, these organizations distributed the phone numbers of Gangneung City Hall and the KTO and urged members to call in protest.
One KTO official remarked, “Each attempt by the government to create convenience facilities for Muslim tourists is met with an incredible backlash. So we are going to change our policy direction to support the voluntary installation of such facilities by the private sector.” Prayer rooms for Muslims are gradually becoming more widespread, mainly in hotels, tourist attractions, and hospitals. As of March, there are 151 such prayer rooms across Korea, 62 (41.1%) of which are in hotels.
Seol Dong-hoon, professor of sociology at Chonbuk National University, commented, “The attitude that a particular religion is unacceptable is not desirable. We can punish any religion that does not abide by South Korea’s laws and principles, which are necessary to maintain the social order. Some Christians have the freedom to not accept Islam because of the differences in religious beliefs, but they should keep all that within the church and not bring it out into society.”
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