South Korea is working to become more Muslim-friendly after witnessing an increase, in 2016, of more than 30 percent of visitors from the Middle East and its neighboring Asian countries. The most recent effort was to build two mobile prayer rooms in PyeongChang for people of all faiths to use during the Winter Olympics. But the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) canceled those plans last week after threats of protests by a Korean anti-Islam group, a Gangneung city hall official told The Washington Post.
PyeongChang Olympics Gangwon Citizens’ Islam Countermeasure Association, a newly created civic group, targeted the country’s tourism organization with a petition signed by more than 58,000 Koreans citing that they don’t want taxpayer money used for “religious bias.” It also mentions that Koreans should be wary of “extremist Muslims” and that rooms should be for Christians, Buddhists and people of religions other than Islam.
“Around the world, other governments are actively responding to prevent Muslim extremists to enter their countries. This decision is the exact opposite,” the organization’s petition reads.
KTO said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the two planned prayer rooms were to be multifaith facilities.
Officials from Gangneung City Hall and KTO met with the anti-Islam group hoping to avoid protests, but could not reach an agreement.
A statement from the International Olympic Committee said the debate over the mobile prayer rooms was a local issue and that Olympic Village provides rooms for people of all faiths. The mobile prayer rooms were to be placed near Gangneung bullet train stations. Faith centers have been available to athletes at Olympic Village for years, but a mobile prayer facility would have been a different approach to accommodating tourists and spectators.
During the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Russians reported that 13 percent of their guests were coming from the Middle East, and hotels listed halal-certified dishes on their menus. In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Olympic Village had a prayer space that seated 50 people for each religion.
Muslims pray five times a day, taking minutes of their time to wash, kneel and pray, making designated rooms especially convenient. Tourists find empty spaces or go to hotels with a designated area to pray.
There are approximately 100,000 Muslims living in South Korea. Most are foreign-born, according to Abraham Denmark, director of Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Denmark said he was surprised by the battle over a prayer room. “Korea is a fairly liberal, tolerant place, and the government has been doing a lot to promote a more friendly atmosphere,” he said.
Many South Korean businesses are depending on an uptick in tourists from Muslim-majority countries after China banned its travel agencies from selling tour packages to South Korea in March. The number of visitors from China declined by half between 2016 and 2017. China’s ban was in retaliation for the United States’ deployment of a defense system in South Korea. It could track the missile system movements of China, a historic ally of North Korea.
South Korea has no major religious group, with 46 percent saying they have no religious affiliation, compared with 29 percent of Christians and 23 percent of Buddhists. According to KTO data, Muslim tourists reached almost 1.2 million for the year by the end of 2017, mostly coming from Malaysia, Iran and Kazakhstan. Despite criticism, the organization has continued to accommodate and attract them.
In 2016, KTO laid out plans to encourage Muslims to visit Korea. Ideas included hosting a halal restaurant week and highlighting Muslim-friendly tourist routes that include halal restaurants, prayer rooms and mosques.
“The problem with South Korea is that it is very unlikely that any other country or group of countries will replace the numbers of Chinese tourists,” Denmark said. “It takes time to build a reputation among your potential clients. It takes time to build infrastructure to support them. Over time, I expect Korea will get a reputation as a modern, fun and safe place.”
South Korea has been criticized before by some of its citizens as the number of halal grocery shops and restaurants, where food is prepared according to Islamic law, continues to grow. Some Christians organized a news conference to protest a project for a halal slaughterhouse. And the anti-Islam group behind the cancellation of the mobile prayer rooms also protested a halal shopping district in Gangwon province in early 2017.