(CNSNews.com) – Should Christians be upset if the packaging of their “hot cross buns” traditionally eaten at Easter carries the Islamic halal food certification symbol?
This question has triggered an animated debate in South Africa in the run-up to Easter, both online and in the media. Protests by some Christians prompted the retailer to agree to offer two packaging options.
One will carry the halal symbol and be labeled “spiced buns” while the other will omit the symbol and be labeled “hot cross buns,” according to a statement from the Woolworths supermarket chain.
The statement, sent to South African media organizations, said some Christian customers had complained.
“We apologize and assure our customers that no offence was intended,” it said. “Going forward our next Easter offer will have both non-Halaal certified hot cross buns and Halaal certified spiced buns.” (South African Muslims spell the word – which is Arabic for “permitted” or “lawful” – “halaal.”)
One wit tweeted that perhaps the cross symbol should be replaced by a crescent moon and star and renamed “talibuns.”
Woolworths said the buns were produced in a halal-certified facility, adding, “Our desire was to offer this well-loved product on an all-inclusive basis that would not exclude any of our customers from enjoying them.”
The growing use of halal certification in countries where Muslims are a minority has become controversial in some quarters, with critics arguing that the mainstreaming of the practice is part of a global Islamization drive.
Halal can apply not only to food but also to other products such as cosmetics, as well as “shari’a-compliant” banking and financial services.
Most important to Muslims is the certification’s use in meat products. In order to be certified halal by a qualified authority, meat must be free from exposure to forbidden substances such as pork. Shari’a calls for the animal to be slaughtered in a ritual that involves the invoking of Allah’s name and the slitting of its throat in a way that ensures complete drainage of blood.
Preparation of non-meat products like bakery items does not involve an Islamic blessing. Ingredients, methods and processes are instead checked, in particular to ensure that none of the products contain any alcohol, ethanol or animal derivatives.
In South Africa, Christians took positions on both sides of the hot cross buns issue.
Opposing comments, as reflected in Twitter feeds, included one reading, “It’s not about the ingredients – it’s the act of taking something tied to my beliefs and stamping it with a Halaal symbol.” Another said, “Woolworths SA clearly has no respect for the Christian Faith to make hot cross buns halaal.”
Others argued that hot cross buns are not inherently Christian anyway but – like Christmas trees, chocolate eggs and other items commonly associated with Christian holidays – have pagan origins.
In comments on his Twitter and Facebook accounts that circulated widely, a spokesman for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Chris Townsend, said South Africa had bigger issues to deal with.
“OK, if you don't like fact that WOOLWORTHS SA has halaal signs on their Hot cross buns, please don't buy them. Make your own,” he wrote. “I’m really not bothered that I am part of a bigger world and that others might enjoy hot Cross buns too. Don’t become Hot cross Christians and neglect the weightier matters of the law of Love.”
The South African National Halaal Authority issued a statement saying the complaints – including the “talibun” tweet -- reflected “bigotry and intolerance.”
“SANHA rejects this furor as unwarranted, having no basis or foundation, which only serves to oxygenate the dying embers of extremism and religious intolerance from the era of the past which our leaders liberated us from with great sacrifices,” it said in a statement.
“A Halaal mark signifies that the product was produced in a Halaal compliant facility which is free from pork, alcohol and non-Halaal materials using only permitted ingredients. It is misleading and ludicrous to allege that prayers are read over every hot cross bun.”
Although Muslims comprise less than two percent of South Africa’s population, the community is an influential and often activist one.
A Christian initiative in Britain, Operation Nehemiah, runs a campaign on behalf of those who for religious, moral or other reasons object to shari’a’s spread in Western societies.
It says it has no objection to Muslims having the freedom to follow their own religious practices and being catered for by the food industry, but objects to non-Muslims having little or no choice in the matter.
In an explanatory paper, Operation Nehemiah highlighted four main reasons for its concerns about the spread of halal:
-- Denial of choice, unless products are labeled and alternatives offered;
-- The imposition of Islamic practices on non-Muslims;
-- Animal welfare concerns relating to halal slaughter; and
-- “For Christians in particular, the Biblical teaching on the eating of foods associated with non-Christian religious practice and its spiritual and social effects within the Christian community.”