cow - Ariel Shalit - January 26 2011
Illustration: A cow Photo by Ariel Shalit
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Dutch lawmakers say they are set to ban centuries-old Jewish and Muslim traditions of slaughtering animals, but have agreed to a last-minute compromise offering religious groups exemptions if they can prove their method of killing livestock does not cause additional suffering.

Centrist lawmakers from several parties — worried that their backing for the ban will cost them votes from Muslim and Jewish supporters — hammered out the compromise shortly before a final debate on the legislation.

Stientje van Veldhoven of the centrist D66 party said Wednesday the amendment gives religious groups "a chance to go and investigate what is possible instead of just telling them what they can't do."

Facing a backlash from Islamic supporters for supporting the law change, the Labor Party has said it wants "to improve the legislation in certain areas."

The party has not revealed what changes it wants, but said it still supports the legislation's key goal — making it obligatory to stun animals before they are slaughtered.

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.

Lawmakers were to debate the bill Wednesday night and were expected to vote on it Thursday or early next week.

The Labor Party's spokesman on the issue, Martijn van Dam, could not be reached for comment ahead of the debate.

The Party for the Animals, the first animal rights party elected to parliament anywhere in the world, proposed the ban on kosher and halal slaughter methods, saying they inflict unacceptable suffering on animals.

Labor is not part of the governing coalition of the free-market Liberal Party and Christian Democrats, but its support is necessary for the legislation to gain a majority in Parliament.

However, Labor has been wrestling with how to balance its commitment to animal welfare with its long-standing support for religious freedoms. Many of its members have criticized the decision to support the ban.

Religious-based parties including the Christian Democrats have refused to support the bill, fearing it will undermine the country's reputation as a bastion of religious tolerance.

Jewish and Muslim groups tried to persuade lawmakers earlier this month that the ban would constitute a fundamental attack on the freedom to practice their faiths.

"If pre-stunning were made compulsory under Dutch law, Jews would be unable to practice a central element of Jewish life which has been continuously practiced for over 3,000 years," Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, told a parliamentary committee.

Around 1 million Muslims and 40,000-50,000 Jews live in the Netherlands, a nation of 16 million. Many of the country's Muslims are Labor voters.

Muslim representatives have said that if halal slaughter is banned by Dutch authorities Muslims will be forced to buy their meat from neighboring countries such as Belgium and Germany.

If the Netherlands outlaws procedures that make meat kosher for Jews or halal for Muslims, it will be the first country outside New Zealand to do so in recent years. It will join the Scandinavian, Baltic countries and Switzerland, whose bans are mostly traceable to pre-World War II anti-Semitism.