Catering to Muslims, Croatia becomes a ‘halal friendly’ country

By Vedran Obu?ina – The Atlantic Post

CroatiaFor a country with only small portion of the Muslim population, it seems odd that the Center for Halal Quality Certification even exists in Croatia.

The center’s objective is to establish the system of quality which enable producers and service providers to certify its processes and products according to Shariah requirements, according to the center’s website. The certification also gives companies the opportunity to place their products in the market with halal logotype.

The center is part of a unique halal certification network in ex-Yugoslavian countries (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro; Slovenia and Kosovo are not included in this network).

The center issues halal certificates in Croatia, while a center in the Bosnian town of Tuzla takes care of other states.

Croatia has a long history of recognizing the Muslim community’s rights.

Croatia constitutionally recognized Islam in 1916, when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

After the Homeland War, as the liberation war in 1990s is called in Croatia, new relationships were established.

In 2002,  the government and the Islamic community signed a contract, which regulates mutual duties and responsibilities related to religious and other affairs. The Muslim community, as well as other religious groups, enjoy complete freedom of worship and often state their satisfaction with the legal framework.

In 2010, the Center for Halal Quality Certification was established. Its main vision is to strengthen the competitiveness and the position of Croatian companies in the world halal market. The center also promotes Croatia as a “Halal Friendly” destination.

The certification process is conducted according to halal requirements and measures defined by Halal Standard HRN BAS 1049:2010, which is registered at the Croatian Standard Institute, according to the center’s website. With it comes the halal logotype. The center has also the international quality standard of ISO9001.

Some European countries, such as Denmark, forbid halal and kosher because of the alleged violation of animal rights. But Croatia is now the only country in the European Union with a  highly standardized halal certification process.

Croatian industry recognizes the importance of having halal certificates, given the growing halal market. Today, 20 percent of  food produced worldwide and 13 percent of the tourism sector is halal certified. For a country like Croatia, with sizable food and tourism sectors, this is the way forward.

In 2012, about 40,000 Jewish and Muslim tourists visited Croatia, and the numbers are expected to increase. These guests often have problems with food and  accommodations. Few hotels and restaurants have kosher and halal certificates.

Currently, 46 producers have halal certification. Seven hotels and one restaurant are deemed  halal friendly. Ten more are in the process of gaining certification, said Aldin Dugonji?, director of the Center for Halal Quality Certification, in an interview with The Atlantic Post.

This year, there are 15 new requests, which shows the country’s willingness to open to the Middle East market and beyond. Among the requests: a school kitchen and an airport.

Croatia’s Islamic community works hard to make the country a model for countries in the European Union. Croatian Muslims have formed a technical board in Brussels. A three-year task force will try to establish an EU halal certificate.

The process is expected to be problematic because there is no overarching Islamic authority either on the European or national level. Most Islamic communities in the European countries function as national communities, and there are differences in opinions on the  halal certification process.

But Dugonji? is convinced the norm will be established, and looks forward to Croatia making an important contribution.

Many institutions and nongovernmental organizations in the EU  favor having a halal norm.

Discussions have taken place in the recent years. In September, Spain will host an international conference on halal tourism. The conference will likely take place in Cordoba, the site of a Judeo-Christian and Islamic university in  medieval Europe.

Croatia’s Islamic community takes part in the halal certification initiatives in other countries. Under the auspices of  the Organization of Islamic Conference,  the Islamic community hopes to create an accreditation body that will supervise halal certification centers worldwide.

No doubt, it will give Croatian companies a major boost in the halal market. Although Croatian products can be competitive everywhere, it is the Middle East that catches most interest.

Podravka,  the biggest Croatian food company, competes in United Arab Emirates. Kraš, which specializes in confectionery products, operates in the demanding Saudi Arabian market.

Croatia, as part of ex-Yugoslavia, has direct contacts with many Arab states. When Yugoslavia was a leader of the non-aligned world, Croatian construction and food companies operated in markets such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Croatia failed to maintain trade relationships, but the quality of the products and services made many Arab nations eager to re-establish connections.

Because quantity is the issue — not quality,  a new initiative is taking place. Islamic communities in the ex-Yugoslavian states are trying to build a network to satisfy demand from the Middle East. The initiative is expected to increase the supply of  halal certified products and services. Until 2006-2007, Islamic communities gave halal certificates only to butcher shops. Now, coordinated action will make better prospects for the local companies.

Rising numbers of visiting Muslims promise to boost Croatia’s tourism sector. But the country lacks  services and appropriate accommodations. To cater to tourists, Islamic communities promote  hotels that have halal rooms.

The rooms have no alcohol or forbidden foods in minibars. They provide domestic prayer timetables, praying carpets, halal cosmetics and Qibla signs showing the direction of Mecca. Muslim guests are offered halal menus. But they should not  trust in products outside the halal certification zone. As a consequence, most Muslim guests visit Croatia as a medical tourism destination.

Cheaper and quality services, together with the mild climate in spring and fall, make Croatia excellent destination for the Arabs. They spend on average $500 more than European guests, and have easy access to Croatia through the airport hubs in Istanbul and Doha. The only problem is obtaining a visa.

Croatia may well become the first European standardized halal destination, and a major halal quality producer.

As Europe turns  increasingly Islamophobic, Croatia builds new mosques and acquires certification standards that will help the country’s economy and create a sense of multiculturalism. The Islamic community is optimistic about the future.

Vedran Obu?ina is The Atlantic Post’s Foreign Affairs Analyst, based in Rijeka, Croatia.