Amsterdam, The Netherlands - One of Europe's first countries to allow Jews to practice their religion openly may soon pass a law banning centuries-old Jewish and Muslim traditions on the ritual slaughter of animals.
In the Netherlands, an unlikely alliance of an animal rights party and the xenophobic Freedom Party is spearheading support for the ban on kosher and halal slaughter methods that critics say inflict unacceptable suffering on animals.
The far right's embrace of the bill, which is expected to go to a parliamentary vote this month, is based mostly on its strident hostility toward the Dutch Muslim population. The Party of the Animals, the world's first such party to be elected to parliament, says humane treatment of animals trumps traditions of tolerance.
Jewish and Muslim groups call the initiative an affront to freedom of religion.
"I can speak for the Dutch Jewish community and I think for the wider Jewish world that this law raises grave concerns about infringements on religious freedom," said Ruben Vis, spokesman for the Netherlands' CJO, an umbrella of Jewish organizations.
Abdulfatteh Ali-Salah, director of Halal Correct, a certification body for Dutch halal meat, said he felt the debate made Muslims in the Netherlands feel Dutch society is more interested in animal welfare than fair treatment of its Muslim citizens.
"If the law goes through now there's nothing else to do but protest," he said. "And that's what we'll do."
As in most western countries, Dutch law dictates that butchers must stun livestock — render it unconscious — before it can be slaughtered, to minimize the animals' pain and fear. But an exception is made for meat that must be prepared under ancient Jewish and Muslim dietary laws and practices. These demand that animals be slaughtered while still awake, by swiftly cutting the main arteries of their necks with razor-sharp knives.
Most Dutch favor a ban, but many centrist parties feel the issue is a distraction from the more serious issue of abuses at regular slaughterhouses.
One of the two parties in the Cabinet, the Christian Democrats, opposes the law out of fear for damage to the country's international image as a haven of tolerance for religious minorities. The other, the pro-business VVD Party, has yet to say which way it will vote.