Mosque project pits villagers against Muslims in Daegu

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The heads of two dead pigs are placed in a residential cul-de-sac in Daehyeong-dong, Daegu, where a mosque is being built, Wednesday afternoon. (Choi Jae-hee/The Korea Herald)

DAEGU – A pig’s head sits on a small chair in a residential cul-de-sac. Another is placed above a bucket, a few feet away. On one wall hangs a banner that reads: “We strongly oppose the construction of an Islamic mosque”.

This little corner of Daehyeong-dong in the conservative southern city of Daegu is the site of one of the most acrimonious cultural conflicts in South Korea today.

A group of Muslims bought one of the properties here and set out to build a mosque.

Now the neighbors, with no legal way to stop them, are resorting to extreme measures to chase them away. Hence the pig heads.

Where do pig heads come from

It was Tuesday evening when Muaz Razaq found the second pig’s head in the alley facing the direction of a temporary prayer center built at the mosque’s construction site.

The first appeared in the alley late last month.

It’s no mystery who put them there, or why, Razaq said.

Muaz Razaq, 26, a Muslim student at Kyungpook National University, stands outside the construction site of a mosque in Daegu on Wednesday.  (Choi Jae-hee/The Korea Herald)

Muaz Razaq, 26, a Muslim student at Kyungpook National University, stands outside the construction site of a mosque in Daegu on Wednesday. (Choi Jae-hee/The Korea Herald)

“Korean neighbors also cooked pork several times in the alley, apparently to annoy Muslim students,” said the 26-year-old Pakistani who is studying computer science at Kyungpook National University. “Some played loud music during our prayer time and turned it off when we were done.”

The Islamic holy book of the Quran prohibits the consumption of pork and pork products. As pigs are considered unclean, placing a pig’s head or cooking pork near a mosque could be considered an act of vandalism of a sacred space for Muslims.

Razaq said hostile acts against Muslims had been going on for more than a year.

Since 2014, Muslim students from Kyungpook have been using one of the houses in this lane as a house of prayer. In December 2020, the construction of a mosque building started with the approval of the district authority. The plan is to erect a two-storey mosque 20 meters high with a minaret at the top. The land is jointly owned by six Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The main goal of the reconstruction is to create a safer and quieter place to pray, Razaq said.

“The previous old building, which was used by about 150 Muslims, mostly KNU students, was not a suitable building for a place of prayer. There were several problems like no cooling system and no underfloor heating,” he said. “Also, it was a small house, so a lot of students had to stay outside.”

Once the mosque is completed, the building which is now used as a temporary house of prayer will be used to accommodate worshippers.

When Korean neighbors learned of the plan, they vehemently opposed it. They endured the noise and inconvenience of Muslim prayers out of goodwill and now the Muslims are about to take over the whole neighborhood, they claim.

Struck by villagers’ complaints, the district office reversed its original position and imposed an administrative order in February 2021 to halt construction of the mosque.

But in December, the Muslim owners obtained a court order to reverse the district office’s decision. In September this year, the higher court upheld the lower court’s decision, paving the way for the construction of the mosque.

As work resumed, residents began to go to extremes, physically obstructing the work, such as blocking the entrance to the construction site with vehicles.

“It’s our last resort”

A man named Jang, 62, is one of the neighbors of the future mosque. His house is two doors down from the construction site.

“Imagine large crowds of people walking past the front door of your home several times a day. The noise of people chatting, walking and riding bikes and motorbikes will drive you crazy,” he said.

“Continued aggression against Muslims is the residents’ last resort to protect our living environment,” he said.

Jang has lived in the house for six years. He said that if the mosque is completed, he will move.

A man named Jang watches the construction site in front of his house as three officials from Daegu's Buk-gu office inspect the area on Wednesday.  (Choi Jae-hee/The Korea Herald)

A man named Jang watches the construction site in front of his house as three officials from Daegu’s Buk-gu office inspect the area on Wednesday. (Choi Jae-hee/The Korea Herald)

He claimed that now is the time for Muslims to show respect to their neighbours. They have endured the noises of their prayers in recent years to respect their religion, he said.

“We used to live in harmony with the Muslim community in the neighborhood for the past few years, sharing food and gifts during holiday periods. We did not complain about their rallies.

But building a real mosque will attract many more Muslim worshipers to their small residential area, Jang said. “They crossed the line.”

A woman who runs a nearby laundromat also expressed her concerns.

The narrow street is already crowded with Muslim students riding bicycles, motorbikes or other vehicles arriving in groups to pray, she said. It is a residential area that cannot accommodate such traffic.

“I saw so many of them park their bikes and motorbikes in the driveway. They come and go in groups. Obviously this little neighborhood will be more crowded,” she said.

Some other residents have complained of strong food odors when Muslims share meals for religious events, social gatherings and conferences.

Razaq said the Muslim community has made suggestions to ease their concerns, such as equipping the mosque with long chimneys and soundproof walls and windows. None were accepted.

“Despite our efforts to find a compromise, Koreans are keeping a hard line on the issue. Now some of them are calling us terrorists and blaming our religion instead of having talks.

Anti-Islam sentiment was palpable in the neighborhood, with several anti-Muslim banners and signs.

A sign in front of a parked car reads: “Islam is an evil religion that kills people.

A sign in front of a parked car reads “Islam is an evil religion that kills people.” (Courtesy of Muaz Razaq)

No viable alternative

While trying to keep Muslims away from their neighborhood, neighbors asked the district office to find another land for the mosque.

The district office, however, is struggling to find a site that meets Muslim demands, which includes a location within walking distance of the university that is large enough to accommodate at least 100 worshipers at a time – and that is free from potential civil complaints.

“Almost every neighborhood we looked at opposed construction. There is no viable alternative at this time,” an official said.

Even as the clash between Koreans and Muslims intensified, construction progressed. It is now approximately 60% complete and is expected to be completed by the end of this year. That is, if it is not delayed by unforeseen factors.

A man named Yang, who owns a studio near the construction site, is already feeling the impact of the mosque’s presence.

“A lot of people here will be moving,” he said. “Some tenants have already decided not to extend their contract because of the mosque.”

By Choi Jae-hee (cjh@heraldcorp.com)

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