S. Korean soldiers convert to Islam before Iraq tour

SEOUL: South Korea's 35,000-strong Muslim community gained 37 new converts yesterday when officers and enlisted soldiers destined for a tour of duty in Iraq were admitted to the faith in a ceremony at Seoul's main mosque. 

South Korea, where Buddhism is the most common religion and Christianity has grown rapidly, has pledged to send 3,000 troops to help reconstruction in Iraq. About 650 South Korean army medics and engineers have served in the country for a year. 

“You are reborn as believers and believers are true human beings,” Sulaiman Lee Haeng-lae Imam told the new converts at the Seoul mosque, one of five in a country of 48 million people. 

Sulaiman, a South Korean leading the congregation in Seoul, said the men's decision to convert to Islam will go a long way towards helping their 3,000-strong contingent become accepted by Iraqis once it is deployed. 

“The Iraqis could become your friends for eternity,” Sulaiman told the new converts after he received oaths from the soldiers. 

A public affairs officer attached to the unit, Capt Lee Yun-se, said many of the 37 new converts had some background in Arab culture, including Arabic language study in college and travel to the Middle East. 

All 3,000 soldiers in the contingent took courses on Arabic culture and customs to help them fit in. 

“The 37 soldiers then volunteered to learn more about Islam at the Seoul mosque and then converted out of faith,” Lee said. 

The troops of the Zayitun unit – the Arabic word for “olive” – are awaiting orders to ship out to northern Iraq to help maintain peace and rebuild the country. 

But seven months after a pledge by President Roh Moo-hyun and three months after parliamentary approval, the government has yet to officially announce where they will be deployed and when. 

A team of liaison officers will leave soon for Iraq to co-ordinate logistics and operations with the Coalition Provisional Authority and local leaders, the defence ministry said. 

In the face of small protests and calls by members of parliament to scrap the deployment, the government has said it will still go forward. 

The 37 new Muslims boosted to 41 the number of Muslims in the Iraq-bound contingent. The other four are military interpreters drawn from the country's Muslim community. 

“There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger,” each of the 37 soldiers recited and in return received a copy of the Koran. 

They were completing a crash course on the religion, a mosque official said, finishing in 10 days what can take up to six months. 

South Korea's defence ministry barred the soldiers from speaking to the media covering the ceremony. 

South Korea is home to another 70,000 Muslims from outside the country, primarily from Southeast Asia. – Reuters  

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