Dutch senate debates ritual slaughter ban

By TOBY STERLING | December 13, 2011 | 10:46 AM EST

Ritually slaughtered lamb is delivered at a halal butcher shop on the market in The Hague, Netherlands, Tuesday Dec. 13, 2011. Political support for a ban on the ritual slaughter of animals without stunning them first, as required by centuries-old Jewish and Muslim dietary traditions, has weakened as the Dutch senate debates the legislation Tuesday. The ban proposed by an animal rights party and widely endorsed by Dutch voters passed parliament's lower house by a 116-30 margin in June. But after an international outcry by religious groups, several political parties said Tuesday they were reconsidering their positions, citing concerns about whether the ban would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

AMSTERDAM (AP) — Political support for a proposed ban on slaughtering animals without stunning them first appeared to crumble Tuesday as the Dutch senate debated legislation that Muslim and Jewish groups say violates their religious rights.

The ban — proposed by an animal rights party and widely supported by Dutch voters — passed parliament's lower house by a 116-30 margin in June, raising an international outcry from religious groups.

Although senators will not vote until Dec. 20, it appeared from Tuesday's debate that several parties that initially backed the ban in parliament — including the Netherlands' two largest — have changed their mind.

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

Speaking first, Labor senator Nico Schrijver said his party now has "many questions" about the bill, including asking why it "so specifically aims its arrows at the rather small number of ritual slaughterers and why not large-scale industrial slaughter, which involves 500 million animals per year?"

"It seems to me that there may be much more effective, and less far-reaching methods that achieve the same goal," Schrijver said, citing better education for slaughterers and better conditions in slaughterhouses.

Muslims make up about one million of the 16 million Dutch population, mostly immigrants from Turkey and Morocco. The once-strong Jewish community numbers 40,000-50,000 after most were deported and killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Ritual slaughter rules prescribe that animals' throats must be cut swiftly with a razor-sharp knife while they are still conscious, so that they bleed to death quickly.

Support for the ban comes both from left-leaning voters who see ritual slaughter as inhumane, and from social conservatives who see it as foreign and barbaric.

Though the ban was proposed by the tiny Party for the Animals, who say the practice is "outdated," the ban's most enthusiastic backer has been the anti-Islam Freedom Party.

"Do we want such practices in a civilized country as ours?" asked Freedom senator Marjolein Faber, after describing a worst-case scenario of a panicked animal taking six minutes to lose consciousness after a botched slaughter.

The Royal Dutch Veterinary Association says it believes that during "slaughter of cattle while conscious, and to a lesser extent that of sheep, the animals' well-being is unacceptably harmed."

Among the two parties in the country's governing coalition, the Christian Democrats opposed the ban from the beginning out of concern for the rights of religious minorities.

The pro-business VVD party, the country's largest, also now appears unlikely to support the ban.

VVD senator Sybe Schaap slammed the bill for "ethical absolutism" and said offering incentives for slaughterhouses to improve their practices would have a more positive effect than a ban.

The Dutch undersecretary for Economic Affairs Henk Blekers has said the Cabinet will only take a position on the bill after the Senate vote.