Sri Lanka Muslims try to defuse halal meat row

Islamic clerics in Sri Lanka tried to calm religious tensions Thursday by telling stores to sell halal meat only to Muslims, after protests by hardliners from the nation's Buddhist majority.

Food manufacturers have long labelled all their products "halal" for convenience, meaning until now non-Muslims have not had any choice in the matter.

Some Buddhists argue they should not be forced to consume food that is prepared according to Islamic religious rites. They say the halal certificate represents the "undue influence" of Muslims and is an "affront" to non-Muslims.

Muslim clerics said a boycott of halal products organised by the hardline Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Force, had created tensions that could erupt into full-blown violence in a country still recovering from decades of ethnic war.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, Sri Lanka's main body of Islamic clergy which issues the halal certificates, asked retailers to ensure that certified products were offered only to Muslims.

"We want to promote peaceful co-existence and harmony," ACJU president Mufti Rizwe told reporters in Colombo, as the organisation called for stores to have separate shelves offering halal and non-halal food.

The clerics' move to defuse tensions came after thousands of nationalist Buddhists staged a rally last weekend to demand that all shops in the country clear their stocks of halal food by April.

Nationalist Buddhist monks and their supporters also launched a campaign to boycott halal-slaughtered meat as well as other products that carry a halal certificate.

The halal method of killing an animal requires its throat to be slit and the blood to be drained.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is a Buddhist, urged monks not to incite religious hatred and violence, amid reports of a wave of attacks and intimidation targeting Muslim businesses.

The Buddhist Force has distanced itself from the violence, saying there are "duplicate groups" pretending to be itself and stirring up trouble.

Sri Lanka's ethnic civil war claimed at least 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009, when Tamil rebels were crushed in a major military offensive.

Less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million are Muslim. The majority are Sinhalese Buddhist, while most Tamils are Hindu.