SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (Circa) -- When you think of South Korea, a few things probably come to mind, like the fermented cabbage side dish known as "kimchi," the country's efforts to deescalate nuclear tensions with its northern neighbor, or even the 2018 Winter Olympic Games held in PyeongChang. What probably didn't come to mind is the growing Muslim community in the country's capital of Seoul.
But it does exists. Nestled in the city's white-capped mountains lies a quiet, tight knit community that's come to define an area often referred to as "Halal Hill." In many ways, it's a place where practicing Muslims can take a step out of one world and into another. Women wear hijabs, restaurants advertise halal-certified Korean food, and signs are written in Arabic.
At the heart of the community lies Seoul Central Mosque, a place of worship for a growing number of immigrants, tourists and Korean converts to Islam.
"Korean citizens, they are very, very--how can I say?--interest to what [they] understand about Islam. In the cause of Seoul Central Masjid, you can say, maybe every year, the number of embrace Muslims, new Muslimani, more than 100 persons."
As surprising as it may sound, what South Korea is experiencing isn't all that different from the rest of the world. Muslims are the fastest growing major religious group, according to Pew Research Center. And experts even believe that, by the end of the century, Islam will surpass Christianity to become the latest religion on the planet.
Imam Abdul Rahman Lee said it wasn't until very recently that Koreans were introduced Islam for the first time. He added that most only really heard about the religion because of 9/11 and a 2007 hostage crisis involving a group of Korean missionaries traveling in Afghanistan. Two of the 23 Koreans were ultimately killed at the hands of the Taliban.
Despite the negative attention that both of those incidents warranted, Lee--who's served as the imam of Seoul Central Mosque since 2006-- said Koreans felt a need to learn more about the religion.
"After that, Koreans...they want to know more about Islam more deeply," he continued. "They want to know about Islam more objectively."
And all that curiosity is reflected in the numbers. In 2001, there were only about 34,000 Muslims living in Korea. But that has since increased to more than 150,000 today, according to the Middle East Institute.
Speaking on a more personal level, the imam explained that it was also a heightened sense of inquisitiveness that put him face-to-face with the religion, but much before the attacks on the World Trade Center took place. He recalled being in his mid-twenties when he strolled past the first mosque in South Korea--what he described as a "very big...very strange building"--and receiving a small booklet of information. After reading the pamphlet, he told Circa that he was struck by one of Islam's core pillars: the idea of purification and ablution.
"Not just in the body and dress, but also internally," Lee added.
Throughout the next 35 years, Lee said he remained dedicated to Islamic studies, so much so that he eventually rose through the ranks to head the largest mosque in South Korea. Every Friday, he gathers about 1,200 people in front of the mosque for the all-important Jumu'ah prayer.
Of course not everybody who converts to Islam becomes a religious leader. Lim Kyongsook, for example, said she converted to Islam after meeting her Pakistani husband.
Before that time, I didn't know about it and what is the Islam. Most of the Korean people, they don't care about the Islam or didn't know. They say what is the Islam. That's why, and that's when I met my husband I had to study. I wanted to respect him."
At first, she said her Korean, Christian family had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she converted to a different religion and married a Muslim man. But that didn't stop her from studying Islam and helping others stay committed to the religion's principles as well. In 2008, she went on to open the first Korean halal restaurant in the area.
Since then, she said that the largely homogeneous country is more accepting of other cultures and religions. Estimates by the Middle East Institute suggest that as many as 45,000 Koreans have converted to Islam.
"Mostly there’s a change," she said. "Korean people change their mind to the people even in that religion and in other culture. Before and even 10 years ago, most of Korean people didn’t know about Islam, but now it’s even in school. We have a class and that’s about Islam, what is Islam."
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