Just as in England, many Korean churches will be holding special Easter services this weekend. But Easter isn’t a public holiday in Korea, as Christianity is just one of the faiths present in the country.
There are many differing statistics around, but according to the 2005 Census by Statistics Korea, around 29% of the population was Christian (Protestant 18.3%, Catholics 10.9%). Buddhists made up for 22.8%, and 1% declared themselves ‘other.’ That means while around half of the population said they followed a particular faith, around half did not. Here’s a brief overview of the main faiths you may come across in Korea today.
Also known as Muism, this is the oldest faith to have existed in Korea, dating back to pre-historic times. Shamans are usually women, who communicate with gods in the spirit world on behalf of humans. All things are considered to have a spirit (inanimate objects and the forces of nature too). Three spirits are held in high regard: Sanshin (the Mountain Spirit), Toksong (the Recluse) and Chilsong (the Spirit of the Seven Stars, the Big Dipper).Read more about Korean Shamanism here. Modern-day fortune-telling originates from Shamanism, and many Koreans do still consult a fortune teller about their love life or career. A gut, one of the shaman rites which involves dancing and chanting, is rare but still held in some areas.
Buddhism arrived in Korea through China in 372, around 800 years after the death of the historical Buddha. The original teachings were blended with Shamanism to create the Seon form. Although it was a national religion for some time, during the Joseon period, Buddhism was repressed. It saw a major comeback after World War Two. Read more about Korean Buddhism here. These days there are many active monasteries and temples. The Jogye order is the biggest sect. April 8th on the Lunar calendar, Buddha’s birthday, is a good time to see special murals and lanterns on display in temples.
A major faith in China, these teachings arrived in Korea around the same time as Buddhism. Confucianism is seen as a philosophy or way of life more than a religion, based on writings from 6th-5th century BE. Read more about Korean Confucianism here. These teachings have a strong influence even today in Korean society; it’s most obvious in each generation’s respect for their elders, however slight the age difference.
Christianity did not receive a warm welcome in Korea. A Jesuit missionary first brought Catholicism to Korea in 1593, but it was another two decades before it really took a hold in the national consciousness, and angered authorities who saw it as a threat to the Confucian way of life. Many Catholics were murdered as they refused to give up their faith. A Welshman, Robert Jermain Thomas, was the first Protestant missionary in Korea. He arrived in 1863 by boat, selling bibles. He too was murdered, but the bibles he sold were kept by many and sowed the seeds of the faith in Korea. After World War Two, Christianity gained many more followers. Read more about Christianity in Korea here. These days, Seoul is home to 11 of the world’s 12 largest Christian congregations. At night, the Seoul skyline is dotted with red neon crosses from the churches.
Muslims settled in Korea in the 9th century, arriving through trading relationships with Korea and their home countries. During the Joseon period records they appear to be non-existent, after being forced to close down mosques and renounce their faith. However, during the Korean War many Turkish troops and humanitarians came to aid the country. These days there are thought to be around 35,000 muslims in Korea. Itaewon in Seoul is home to Seoul Central Mosque, and there are around seven other smaller mosques around the country. Read more about everyday life for muslims in Korea here. And here’s a video from EyK about Muslims in Korea.
It’s interesting to also think about this: while half the population claim not to have a particular faith, most Koreans still do practice ancestral rites that seem to transcend specific religions. Still curious? Check out the Korean-American blogger Ask a Korean for his thoughts on religious matters in Korea.