A Muslim cleric from Saudi has urged FIFA, football's governing body, to prohibit Christian players from making the sign of the cross after scoring a goal.
Mohammed Alarefe, a professor of religion at King Saud University in Riyadh, said that he often sees players making the sign of the cross during the game and asked whether FIFA has rules that forbid the athletes from making the gesture.
"I've seen video clips of athletes, soccer players running, shooting and when they win they make the symbol of the cross on their chests and my question is do FIFA's rules not forbid this," he wrote on Twitter, as reported by The Daily Mail.
After posting the controversial message, the cleric, who has 17.5 million Twitter followers, quickly received a backlash from football fans who disagreed with him.
Several people have pointed out that Muslim players make their own gestures when celebrating a goal. Others criticized the cleric, saying his remarks incited division.
"I can't lie. Mohamed Salah and others kneel to pray when they score a goal and no one punishes them. Leave the sport to those who deal with it," said Sultan Alhusni, referring to an Egyptian footballer playing for Italian club Roma.
One Twitter user identifying himself as Capitano wrote: "The ISIS regime forbids crossing oneself; when al-Baghdadi is elected president of FIFA, we'll discuss the respected sheikh's request."
Religious symbolism in football has become a controversial topic in 2017. Champions League regulars Real Madrid has recently agreed to remove the Christian cross from its clothing line sold in some Middle East countries.
Marka, a retailing group in the United Arab Emirates, has been granted exclusive rights to manufacture, distribute and sell the team's official merchandise in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
Khaled al-Mheiri, vice chairman of the retailing company, noted that Real Madrid has two versions of the crest for the Middle East market, and Marka will be using the one without the cross due to cultural sensitivities.
"We have to be sensitive towards other parts of the Gulf that are quite sensitive to products that hold the cross," said al-Mheiri.
In 2014, Real Madrid allowed its sponsor, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, to use its crest that does not include the Christian cross. The team is also sponsored by Abu Dhabi-based investment fund IPIC, as well as the Dubai-based Emirates airline.
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