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Mosque project tests South Korea's tolerance for increasing diversity

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Like many nations, South Korea has an aging and shrinking workforce, and the country looks to immigrants to bolster it. But a case in Daegu, South Korea's third largest city, is testing the nation's tolerance for increasing diversity. NPR's Anthony Kuhn traveled there and filed this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At the heart of the dispute is the Dar-ul-Emaan Islamic Center, where an imam leads afternoon prayers. The center sits down a narrow alleyway near a university. The worshippers are mostly students from there. Since 2020, students have been trying to build a proper mosque to accommodate more worshippers. But Muaz Razak, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student from Pakistan, says they face severe resistance from local residents.

MUAZ RAZAK: They were, like, literally calling us terrorists when we are passing.

KUHN: In one video Razak shot last year, a local resident stands in the alleyway shouting out the text of a sign in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Muslims have killed people.

KUHN: "Muslims have killed people brutally and beheaded them," he shouts, adding, "get out of this area right now, terrorists." Razak says the construction of the mosque would have been finished by now if residents had not obstructed the builders. But protesters reject this claim. Kim Jeong-ae is the deputy head of a local residents' committee. She says they're not opposing the mosque itself. They just think this is the wrong place for it.

KIM JEONG-AE: (Through interpreter) We are opposed to a public facility being built in the middle of a residential district with no public road. We would have objected to anything.

KUHN: She says the mosque's neighbors have put up with inconvenience, noise and cooking odors coming from the Islamic center for years. But they don't object to Muslims or their faith.

KIM: (Through interpreter) Reports say residents are opposing Islam as a religion. But we don't really know about Islam. It's so unfamiliar, foreign to us.

KUHN: But some residents' actions suggest otherwise. Just outside the mosque, you can hear a quiet hum.

(SOUNDBITE OF REFRIGERATOR HUMMING)

KUHN: It's a resident's refrigerator. Inside it sit three severed pigs' heads. Residents opposed to the mosque have also held parties in the alleyway serving pork. Yi Sohoon is a sociologist at Kyungpook National University next to the mosque. She also heads a task force supporting the mosque's construction. She says that the mosque case follows backlashes against Yemeni refugees in 2018 and Afghans in 2021. And they call into question...

YI SOHOON: Whether the increasing diversity resulted in more acceptance of foreigners.

KUHN: Or more xenophobia against them. Foreigners now account for about 4.4% of South Korea's population of 52 million. Muslims account for about an estimated 0.4%. Despite the backlashes against them, Yi says...

YI: No government authorities other than the Human Rights Commission in this country, no university, have said it is wrong to hate Muslims.

KUHN: The National Human Rights Commission of Korea, a government agency, said in March that putting pork in front of a mosque amounts to hate speech. Yi notes that South Korea lacks an anti-discrimination law, but South Korea's constitution bans discrimination, and, Yi says, so do international covenants South Korea has signed. The problem, Muaz Razak says, is that South Korean authorities are not enforcing them.

RAZAK: If this mosque construction is illegal, you should stop us, and the students' community will have no right to construct here. But if it is legal, then your job is to protect us and enforce the rule of law.

KUHN: For now, civic groups are lining up on opposing sides of this issue. Groups supporting human rights and multiculturalism are backing the Muslims, while conservatives and some church groups side with the residents. Rallies against the mosque are scheduled for later this month. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Daegu, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUNG ALE SONG, "ONE TIME (ALEMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.