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Sunday Times STLive By SANTHAM PILLAY, 2012-04-01

Halaal sign angers Christians

Hot cross buns.
Image: RAYMOND PRESTON 20/3/2012

The humble hot-cross bun threatens to divide religions and has sparked calls for a boycott of one of the country's biggest retailers.

The controversy comes after a Cape Town consumer noticed that Woolworths had certified its hot-cross buns as halaal for Muslim customers.

The consumer complaint has since gone viral on social networking sites, with some Christians voicing their disapproval of having the certification on the treat, which is traditionally consumed at Easter (the most important Christian festival).

However, religious leaders - such as Lazarus Pillay, president of Christian Network International (CNI) - say something as trivial as a hot-cross bun should not divide a nation.

The man who complained, wrote: "To me the moon and star - a big symbol in Islam - is trying to negate a Christian position."

Consumers have threatened to boycott the stores. One woman said that having the logo of another religious group on something that was of such great significance to the Christian community was "blasphemy".

However, Pillay said the hot-cross buns had been available at Woolworths for many months.

"No one has raised this issue before. From a Christian point of view, I would say, let us not make the insignificant become a significant issue. There is nothing holy about a hot-cross bun. It is pure commercialism."

Pillay said while the reaction by some Christians was "over the top", consumers should have a variety of options.

"There is more that we need to worry about than Woolworths and these hot cross buns. But for me, on the issue of halaal, it should not be imposed on consumers who don't want to contribute towards the Islamic fiscus.

"A percentage of the funds from [products that carry the halaal certification] go towards the propagation of Islam and I think that a community should have a choice about what they want to give and who they want to give it too, much like the Muslim community does."

Another disgruntled customer questioned why Christians should "continuously be subjected to eating foods that other religions have prayed over".

Noted Islamic scholar Moulana Rafiq Shah said this was a "ludicrous" misconception.

"Halaal certification simply means that the ingredients making up the product should not contain any prohibited substances like alcohol. When it comes to halaal, and these products, nobody has ever prayed over them."

Shah said he could understand if people were upset because the cross was a symbol of Christianity. But he said the halaal status in no way affected this.

Woolworths responded that it was not the intention of the company to insult or belittle the beliefs of any religious group and its goal had been to be inclusive of all faiths.

"Woolworths sells hot-cross buns throughout the year. They are produced in a facility that is halaal certified. Our desire was to offer this well-loved product on an all-inclusive basis that would not exclude any of our customers."

Woolworths apologised and assured customers that their complaints had been noted. It said there would be a change.

"Our next Easter offering will have both non-halaal certified hot- cross buns and halaal certified spiced buns."

Kamal Maharaj, editor of the Hindu newspaper Vishwa Shakti said that as South Africa was a multifaith country and people of all faiths purchased hot cross buns, food should be "certified equally".