BRUSSELS • A Belgian ban on the Muslim and Jewish ways of ritually slaughtering animals went into effect on New Year's Day - a sign of a larger clash across Europe over the balance between animal welfare and religious freedom.
With both animal welfare advocates and right-wing nationalists pushing to ban ritual slaughter, religious minorities in Belgium and other countries fear that they are the targets of bigotry under the guise of animal protection.
"It is impossible to know the true intentions of people," said Senior Rabbi Yaakov David Schmahl in Antwerp. "Unless people state clearly what they have in mind, but most anti-Semites don't do that."
Laws across Europe and European Union regulations require that animals be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter to make the process more humane.
For larger animals, stunning before slaughter usually means using a "captive bolt" device that fires a metal rod into the brain; for poultry, it usually means an electric shock. Animals can also be knocked out with gas.
But slaughter by Muslim halal and Jewish kosher rules requires that an animal be in perfect health - which religious authorities say rules out stunning it first - and be killed with a single cut to the neck that severs critical blood vessels.
The animal loses consciousness in seconds, and advocates say it may cause less suffering than other methods, not more.
ADVICE NOT TAKEN
The government asked for our advice on the ban, we responded negatively, but the advice wasn't taken.
MR SAATCI BAYRAM, a leader of the Muslim community.
It is impossible to know the true intentions of people.
SENIOR RABBI YAAKOV DAVID SCHMAHL, in Antwerp.
LAW BEFORE RELIGION
Well, I'm sorry, in Belgium, the law is above religion and it will stay like that.
MS ANN DE GREEF, director of Global Action in the Interest of Animals, a Belgian animal welfare group.
Most countries and the EU allow religious exceptions to the stunning requirement, though in some places - like Germany and the Netherlands, where a new law took effect last year - the exceptions are very narrow. Belgium is joining Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia among the nations that do not provide for any exceptions.
Ms Ann De Greef, director of Global Action in the Interest of Animals, a Belgian animal welfare group, said stunning does not conflict with kosher and halal doctrine, and "they could still consider it ritual slaughtering", but the religious authorities refuse to accept that.
"They want to keep living in the Middle Ages and continue to slaughter without stunning - as the technique didn't yet exist back then - without having to answer to the law," she said. "Well, I'm sorry, in Belgium, the law is above religion and it will stay like that."
Belgium, with a population of about 11 million, is home to about 500,000 Muslims and more than 30,000 Jews. Those who adhere to their religious rules will soon be forced to order their meat from abroad, which community members say will mean paying more, and could even lead to food shortages.
Leaders of both groups said they hope the lawsuits they have filed in Belgium's Constitutional Court might still lift the ban on slaughtering without stunning later this year.
"The government asked for our advice on the ban, we responded negatively, but the advice wasn't taken," said Mr Saatci Bayram, a leader of the Muslim community.
"This ban is presented as a revelation by animal welfare activists, but the debate on animal welfare in Islam has been going on for 1,500 years. Our way of ritual slaughtering is painless," he added.
Mr Joos Roets, a lawyer representing an umbrella organisation of Islamic institutions, said the ban was motivated more by stigmatising certain groups than concerns over animal welfare.
The government could take other steps to reduce animal suffering, "without violating the Belgian freedom of religion and the European regulation regarding this matter".
The idea for the ban was first proposed by Mr Ben Weyts, a right-wing Flemish nationalist and the minister in the Flanders government who is responsible for animal welfare.