Nadia Al Insyiraah, a Muslim student from Singapore who attends a prestigious women’s university in Seoul, still remembers the day she went to the freshman orientation session organized by the international students’ office.
“The faculty told us that every undergraduate student must attend chapel class every week for eight semesters, and we can’t graduate the school unless we pass the course,” Nadia told The Korea Herald.
“I was shocked. I knew the university was a mission school but never thought the chapel was a must thing for every student. There were about 100 international students in the room for the orientation, and I still remember the scene. We all (looked at) each other in surprised eyes, as most of us had no idea about it.”
A mission school refers to a school founded by Christian missionaries. According to the Korea Federation of Christian Schools, South Korea has 48 four-year universities and 28 two-year colleges that fit into this category.
Nadia, who goes home five times a day to pray, has been attending chapel once a week for almost four years now -- she feels that she has no other choice.
“When I told it to my family, my mom also said I should just go to chapel.”
Nadia said she spends her chapel time using her mobile phone or doing homework assignments while other students pray and sing hymns.
Many of the nation’s private universities were established by Christian organizations. In keeping with the vision of their missionary founders, many require students to take classes with a Christian focus, including chapel courses.
While requirements vary depending on the university, most chapel classes include praying, singing hymns and listening to sermons.
Failure to meet chapel requirements often means students can’t graduate -- unless they can make up for their absence in other ways, such as by submitting pages of Bible verses copied longhand or attending supplementary chapel classes during summer or winter breaks. Typically, all undergraduate students are required to attend chapel, regardless of their religious beliefs.
The existence of mandatory chapel courses has stirred up controversy at a time when Korean schools are admitting international students from increasingly diverse religious backgrounds.
Anna, an international student from New York, told The Korea Herald that many of her Muslim friends face difficulty because of the chapel requirement.
“Especially for international students, we are all from such diverse backgrounds. We always talk about how annoying the chapel is,” Anna said.
“I think the school shouldn’t have the chapel be mandatory, because the chapel course focuses on Christianity, but a lot of the international students who come here are Muslims. So it’s a really big issue for them.”
Anna, a Roman Catholic, said she understands that the chapel is part of a tradition the school wants to uphold, but that the “tradition” is out of step with modern times.
“To keep on forcing those kinds of traditions when it is clearly not in the interest of the students who have to go to the chapel, I think it’s against students’ own rights.”
Cathy, a Taiwanese student who attends a mission school in Korea, also expressed discomfort over her school’s mandatory chapel course.
“As a person who doesn’t believe in God, I honestly feel it’s a waste of my time to attend a chapel class every week. The school pushes everyone to take the course for eight semesters, and I think it’s quite too much.”
History of resistance
Mandatory chapel courses are a source of controversy among Korean students as well.
In 1995, a student from Soongsil University who was not allowed to graduate due to failure to meet the chapel course requirement filed suit against the school, saying the university regulation -- forcing students to take the course for six semesters -- violated students’ right to freedom of religion.
The Supreme Court took the university’s side in 1998, saying private schools can establish regulations requiring students to take religion-related classes as a condition of graduation, within limits -- meaning the regulations must not infringe upon students’ right not to embrace a certain religion.
Resistance to chapel requirements continued, however, and in 2003 students at several universities -- including Ewha Woman’s University, Myongji University and Yonsei University -- banded together to oppose them.
In 2006, two students from Soongsil Unversity filed a constitutional appeal, saying the Ministry of Education was violating the Constitution by failing to restrict the school from imposing a chapel requirement.
Most of the lawsuits ended in failure, as courts ruled that by choosing to attend a school, students were agreeing to follow the school’s regulations.
The issue resurfaced on social media in March, when a Yonsei freshman complained about fellow students on the Facebook page “Yonsei University Bamboo Forest,” saying many students weren’t paying attention to the sermons during chapel sessions.
“They must have chosen to enter this school knowing it’s a missionary school. But why are there so many people who don’t practice good manners in the chapel?” the student wrote.
The post ignited a heated debate, garnering more than 120 comments. Many of the commenters questioned whether it was appropriate to require all undergraduate students to attend chapel.
“Even though students have chosen to enter the missionary school, the choice may have been made under the (same kind of) social pressure that fosters academic elitism. I think the school has been pushing students to (accept) a certain religion by using its position,” a commenter said, garnering “likes” from over 200 people.
“Just because it’s a missionary school, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to be religious. The reason why students come to this school isn’t only because it’s a missionary school. Before it’s a missionary school, it’s a good school, and it has many factors that made students choose it,” Anna from New York said of her university.
But some students argue that students who want to take advantage of a school’s name value yet refuse to respect that school’s religious identity are being “irresponsible.”
“Before they started to attend this school, they should have known that it’s a Christian school. If you don’t want to come to a Christian school, then it’s kind of like ‘Don’t come here,’ in a way,” Joy, a sophomore from Yonsei University, told The Korea Herald.
“The school was established under Christian values, and people who founded this school wanted to keep that values all the way through. Students who are planning to come to Yonsei should keep that in mind, or should consider going to another school if they don’t want to face (such conflicts).”
Many students expressed discomfort with universities’ restrictions on their behavior at chapel. Some universities have assistants check during religious services and give warnings if someone zones out or spends too much time on a laptop or mobile phone.
“For some non-Christian students, the chapel course is just a class they attend to pass. Within the boundary that (their conduct) does not affect or harm others, I think every student has freedom on what to do during the class,” said a commenter in response to the Yonsei Facebook discussion.
Some argued that schools paradoxically say they do not force their beliefs on students, yet regulate students’ behavior during a chapel service.
“If you don’t give us a choice to go, at least they should give us a choice as to what to do during that time, because for some people, it doesn’t apply to them and it doesn’t go with their beliefs,” said Anna, who was upset that an assistant forced her to close her laptop as she was trying to do the reading for her next class.
Asked why the school has assistants monitor and restrict student behavior during chapel services, Yonsei University declined to answer.Key to resolving the conflicts
Amid the heated debate, universities tend to say they respect their students’ religious beliefs and that the purpose of mandatory chapel attendance is not to force them to be Christians (or Protestants).
“The chapel course in Ewha has been carried out since 1888, as part of the school’s efforts to maintain a spirit of community among the students, professors and the faculty,” the Ewha Woman’s University chaplain’s office told The Korea Herald in a written statement.
“Our chapel features various programs, including dance performances and lectures that convey our Christian values to students in a friendly way.”
Other universities, such as Yonsei and Myongji, offer similar programs to attract the attention of non-Christian students.
“Transforming and distorting the sacred chapel class into something entertaining by hosting dancers and lectures to grab people’s attention can be a serious sacrilege,” Ryu Sang-tae, a pastor and the chief of the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom, told The Korea Herald in a phone interview.
“Putting people with different beliefs all in one room for the chapel class and making them feel bored, use their mobile phones and sleep during that time is another sacrilegious practice that schools are committing.”
The key to resolving the controversial issue is simple, Ryu said.
“It’s absurd to compel missionary schools to stop conducting chapel classes, as they have the right to teach and share their beliefs with students. At the same time, students also have the right not to believe in God and to refuse to attend the chapel class. Exercising one’s rights while ignoring the rights of others is illogical.
“The problem is that the school forces every student to take the chapel course. If the class becomes an elective course, I believe all disputes will be resolved. Rather than pushing non-Christian students to attend the chapel, it would be much better if schools held a genuinely sacred chapel service every week with students who have a firm belief in Jesus.”
By Park Ju-young (firstname.lastname@example.org