|[Seoul Central Mosque / Photo Credit: Sewon Han]|
One Friday afternoon in October, my family and I went to Itaewon for what we hoped would be an “exotic” culinary experience. We saw a lot of foreigners coming out of Itaewon Station, mostly headed in the same direction, and decided to follow them, leading us to a very foreign-looking area which I later found out is known as “Muslim Street” or “Halal Street,” and arrived at Seoul Central Mosque. I was surprised to see a mosque in Seoul, and I realized that I do not know much about Muslims at all except for what I see on the news. Out of pure curiosity, I called and asked for an interview to find out more about Seoul Central Mosque and the Muslim population in Korea.
|[Halal restaurants near Seoul Central Mosque / Photo Credit: Sewon Han]|
At the entrance of the mosque, a Muslim man said “Hi” in English and waved at me. Surprised by this gesture of politeness from a complete stranger (a rare occurrence in Korea!), I waved back. After this short and pleasant encounter, I went to the office of my interviewee, Hussein Jang, who is originally from Turkey. He came to Korea 20 years ago and was naturalized, which is how he gained a Korean surname. When I asked how and when the Seoul Central Mosque was built, Jang told me that the grounds on which the mosque stands is the property of the Korean government and that the mosque was built in 1976 with funds from countries with large Muslim populations (Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey) that the Korean government had contacted for assistance at the time. The three countries agreed to provide construction funding in exchange for trade relations with Korea. I asked Jang if the mosque accepts monetary offerings as do Christian churches, to which he explained that the financial sources required to maintain the mosque were initially provided by Arab countries, but is today funded by contributions from the local Muslim population and also by Muslim tourists from other countries. The mosque was renovated and expanded in 1991 with financial support from the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah. According to the Korea Muslim Federation, there are approximately 100,000 Muslims living in Korea, with this number including foreigners as well as Korean nationals.
|[The author interviewing Hussein Jang / Photo Credit: Sewon Han]|
Thanks to Hallyu, the number of Muslim tourists vising Korea is increasing. Favorite destinations of Muslim tourists include Nami Island and Seoul Central Mosque. According to the Korea Tourist Organization, the Muslim population comprises one-fourth of the global population, with more Muslims from Arab countries visiting Korea each year to receive high-quality medical services. Some hospitals have homepages with instructions in Arabic, while others even have prayer rooms on hospital premises specifically for Muslim patients.
According to Jang, the mosque is most crowded during Friday prayers, when approximately 800 Muslims gather. On other days, it is open to anyone. Visitors are mostly Muslim tourists who come to the Itaewon area for Halal food and to pay a visit to a mosque. Children of Muslim parents living in Korea attend Prince Sultan Islamic School, which is located within the mosque’s compound, to study Islamic teachings as well as the Korean language, Taekwondo, computer skills, and art. Those who are unable to attend Friday prayers come to the mosque on Saturday and some even sleep at the mosque and prepare breakfast together with other worshippers the next day. For them, the mosque is truly a home away from home.
I asked Jang if there were any difficulties of being a Muslim in Korea, and he said “Muslims face prejudice and stereotypes every day because of unfortunate incidents that have happened in the past and how we are portrayed in the media.” He also said that among the 18 Islam mosques in Korea, Seoul Central Mosque is the largest and hosts events that invite people of all religions to come and enjoy Islam culture and cuisine.
Seoul Central Mosque is one of the most unique places in Korea. Despite the short amount of time I spent in the area, I experienced enough to make me feel lucky to be there. Not only was the architecture of the mosque spectacular but the area around the mosque also offered many attractions, including supermarkets selling Indomie Mi Goreng (one of my favorite instant noodle brands) and Halal restaurants serving Halal-prepared food and desserts. Most notably, Seoul Central Mosque was an excellent reminder that all people living in Korea, no matter where they are from, can enjoy true freedom of religion.
Sophomore (Grade 10)
Shepherd International Education
Sewon Han firstname.lastname@example.org
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