People of Koryo and early Choson kingdoms also actively sought Muslims from the Middle East and let them form communities around the capitals. Korean monarchs and aristocrats gave backing to the religion, and Muslims held religious service even at the palaces. The relations were amicable, albeit not very close due to geographical reasons, until hard-line Confucians took power during the Choson Kingdom and suppressed other religions.
Once parted, the two cultures seem to have a large gap for hundreds of years. Lack of knowledge often has often brought lack of understanding. Prejudice about ``belligerent'' Islam as a religion ``spread by the sword'' took root in the sentiment of some Koreans.
The tragic killing of Kim Sun-il, South Korean interpreter in Iraq in 2004, somehow fanned the prejudice. Even though the Korea Muslim Federation expressed ``deep sorrow'' at the time, mosques in Korea got several threatening phone calls.
``It's getting better. People have been raising their awareness of our beliefs so much,'' said Sulaiman Lee Haeng-lae, imam of Seoul Central Mosque during an interview with The Korea Times at the mosque last week.
``It was sorrowful for us to see some people unduly associate Islam with political implications. However, people are beginning to understand that Islam is a religion of peace and conciliation,'' the imam said.
In the context, the clergy made it clear that the religion keeps a strict distance from terrorism. ``As known, we Muslims condemn terrorism and suicide. We view the terrorists as politicians rather than Muslims,'' he said.
``In history, many politicians claimed religion as the cause of wars they started, because they could not confess that they were fighting for their own interests. In that context, religions were in many occasions forced to sacrifice for politics,'' Lee said.
Accordingly, the 69-year-old clergyman asked terrorist groups around the world to turn to nonviolent and nonresistant measures. ``They need to be convinced that we cannot control the evil by an evil measure. It should be done by the good measure.''
Lee also made no bones about his criticism of ``Western Powers.'' ``It is apparent that terrorism shall never be justified or encouraged, but on the other side we shall observe the sad history of the Middle East under the influence of Western Powers,'' he noted. ``They shall bear a certain responsibility for the cause of terrorism.'' ``Why do people commit suicide bearing bombs in the Middle East? They are definitely to blame. However, at the same time, we need to understand why they are doing such an act,'' he said. Regarding the controversy over the ``blasphemous'' Danish cartoon, the clergy took a cautious, but strict, position. ``It is inappropriate behavior for them to describe Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist,'' he said.
Lee said the cartoon is also based on false stereotypes about the religion and the prophet. ``On the contrary, the prophet spread messages of peace and equality around 1,400 years ago when every ruler wielded their powers to kill people,'' Lee said.
Even worse, Islam strictly bans recreations of Muhammad's image. ``The prophet ordered not to paint his image for fear that he might be deified later. However, the Danish newspaper unduly depicts his image,'' the imam said.
Lee entered the belief at the suggestion of a friend in 1961 when he was a university student majoring in Korean literature. After serving as an official for three decades in Korean mosques, he became imam in 1991.
Korea now has around 100,000 foreign Muslims and some 35,000 Korean Muslims, Lee said.