DAEGU -- A pig’s head sits atop a small chair at a residential dead end. Another is placed on top of a bucket, a few steps away. On a wall hangs a banner that reads: “We strongly oppose the construction of an Islamic mosque.”
This tiny corner of Daehyeong-dong in the southern conservative 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 have set out to build a mosque.
Now neighbors, with no legal means to stop them, are resorting to extreme measures to drive them out. Hence the pig heads.
Where pig’s heads are 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 construction site.
The first appeared in the alley late last month.
It is no mystery who put them there, or why, Razaq said.
“Korean neighbors also cooked pork in the alley several times apparently to annoy Muslim students,” said the 26-year-old Pakistani who studies computer science at Kyungpook National University. “Some played loud music during our prayer time and switched it off once we finished.”
The Islamic holy book Quran forbids the consumption of pork and pig products. As pigs are seen as unclean, placing a pig’s head or cooking pork near a mosque could be considered akin to an act of vandalism of a sacred space to Muslims.
Razaq said hostile acts against Muslims have continued for over a year.
Since 2014, Muslim students at Kyungpook have been using one of the houses in this alley as their prayer house. In December 2020, construction of a mosque building began with approval of the district authority. The plan is to erect a two-story, 20-meter-high mosque with a minaret at the top. The land is co-owned by six Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The main purpose of rebuilding is to make a safer, quieter religious place for prayer, Razaq said.
“The previous old building, which has been used by roughly 150 Muslims, mostly the KNU students, was not a proper building for a prayer place. There were several problems like no cooling system and no floor heating,” he said. "Also it was a small house, so many of the students had to stand outside."
Once the mosque is completed, the building which is now used as a temporary prayer house will be used to accommodate female worshipers.
When Korean neighbors learned of the plan, they vehemently opposed it. They endured noise and inconvenience from Muslim prayers out of goodwill and now the Muslims are about to take over the whole neighborhood, they claim.
Hit with complaints from villagers, the district office reversed its initial stance and imposed an administrative order in February 2021 to stop the mosque construction.
But in December, the Muslim landlords won a court order to repeal the district office's decision. In September this year, the top court upheld the lower court’s decision, clearing the path for the mosque's construction.
As work resumed, residents started to go to extremes, physically obstructing the work such as by blocking the entrance of the construction site with vehicles.
‘It’s our last resort’
A man surnamed Jang, 62, is one of the future mosque's neighbors. His home is two doors away from the building site.
“Imagine large crowds of people pass by your house’s front door several times a day. The sound of people chatting, walking and riding bikes and motorcycles will drive you crazy,” he said.
“The ongoing aggression towards Muslims is residents’ last resort to protect our living environment,” he said.
Jang has lived in the house for six years. He said if the mosque is completed, he will move.
He contended that now it is time for the Muslims to show respect to their neighbors. They have endured noises from their prayers for the past years to respect their religion, he said.
“We used to live in harmony with the Muslim community in the neighborhood over the past years, sharing food and gifts during holiday seasons. We didn’t make complaints about their gatherings.”
But the building of a proper mosque will attract far more Muslim worshipers to their tiny residential corner, Jang said. “They crossed the line.”
A woman who runs a laundry shop nearby also expressed concerns.
The narrow street is already clogged with Muslim students riding bikes, motorcycles or other vehicles arriving in groups to pray, she said. It is a residential district that cannot accommodate such traffic.
“I’ve seen so many of them just park their bikes and motorcycles in the alley. They come and go in groups. It’s obvious that this small neighborhood will be more congested,” she said.
Some other residents complained about strong odors of food when Muslims share meals for religious events, social gatherings and lectures.
Razaq said the Muslim community has offered suggestions to ease their concerns, such as equipping the mosque with long chimneys and soundproof walls and windows. None has been accepted.
“Despite our efforts to make a compromise, Koreans are keeping a hard line on the issue. Now some of them call us terrorists and blame our religion instead of having talks.”
Anti-Islam sentiment was palpable in the neighborhood, with several anti-Muslim banners and signs.
No viable alternatives
While trying to stave off Muslims from their neighborhood, the neighbors have been asking the district office to find an alternative plot for the mosque.
The district office, however, struggles to find a site that meets the Muslims’ demands, which includes a location within walking distance of the university that is large enough to accommodate at least 100 worshipers at once -- and that is free of potential civil complaints.
“Almost all neighborhoods we reviewed opposed the construction. There is no viable alternative for now,” an official said.
Even as the standoff between Koreans and Muslims has intensified, the construction has progressed. It is now about 60 percent complete and is expected to finish at the end of this year. That is, if not delayed by unforeseen factors.
A man surnamed Yang, who owns a studio apartment nearby the construction site, already feels the impact of the mosque’s presence.
“Many of the residents here will move out,” he said. “Some tenants already decided not to extend their contract because of the mosque.”