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Danish Jews, Muslims fight for exemption to ritual slaughter ban

COPENHAGEN Denmark (RNS) The Danish government approved a measure earlier this month forbidding poultry and livestock to be killed without being stunned first. But Jewish and Muslim customs require animals to be conscious when killed.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (RNS) Jewish and Muslim groups in Denmark have vowed to fight a new ban on the ritual slaughter of animals necessary to ensure kosher and halal meat, saying the law threatens their religious freedom.

Sheep slaughtered at a halal slaughter house in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy of WSPA

Sheep slaughtered at a halal slaughter house in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy of WSPA

“It is a basic element of the Jewish religion and if they take this away, they take away a basic right,” said Bent Lexner, chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen.

The Danish government approved a measure earlier this month forbidding poultry and livestock to be killed without being “pre-stunned” — a method that ensures the animals are not awake when they are slaughtered. But according to Jewish and Muslim customs, animals must be conscious when killed to be considered kosher (Jewish) or halal (Muslim), though rules for Muslim slaughter are more lenient.

Denmark is the latest European country to approve such a ban: Norway, Sweden and Switzerland passed laws forbidding ritual slaughter decades ago, and the Poles approved a ban in 2012. The Dutch Senate rejected a bill by the Party for the Animals that same year, while the British have refused to introduce such a bill in spite of intense lobbying by animal rights groups.

The Danish ban is also the latest to pit the norms of a majority society against those of minority religious populations in Europe. An uproar broke out after the German government tried to ban the circumcision of boys as cruel and unnecessary. Recently, Denmark debated such a ban.

Still, animal rights groups in Denmark and elsewhere say animal rights trump religion and that such a ban is necessary. They add that scientific research shows stunning an animal before slaughter is more humane.

“This decision is an improvement for animal welfare,” said Pernille Fraas Johnsen, agricultural campaign manager for the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ Copenhagen branch. “We don’t call it a ban on kosher (practices) but a ban on slaughter without stunning because for us, and I think for the government as well, it is a matter of animal welfare.”

A view from inside Copenhagen's Great Synagogue. Photo courtesy of Elon Cohn

A view from inside Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue. Photo courtesy of Elon Cohn

Danish officials said the country has long had restrictive rules concerning the ritual slaughter of animals. Until now, all animals had to be stunned, but an exception allowed animals to be stunned after the slaughter. That exception has now been removed.

Jewish and Muslim groups say the latest moves effectively disenfranchise their time-honored religious traditions.

“With this, it is no longer permitted to slaughter without pre-stunning a cow, and before, it was legal to do that — so it is a ban,” said Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Community Center in Copenhagen. 

The European Union — of which Denmark is a member — requires pre-stunning. But the bloc’s rules allow for exemptions on religious grounds.

That is what the groups are asking for.

“This has something to do with recognizing that you have a minority and the minority should have some kind of freedom to express its (values),” said Schwarz.

Schwarz said it was clear some minorities had more power than others. For example, hunters are allowed to continue their traditions, while Jews and Muslims are not.

“So we keep hunting and lose ritual slaughter, which actually affects a much bigger group of people — but people whose position in Danish society is weak,” he said.  

Jews are estimated to number around 5,000 and Muslims about 270,000 of Denmark’s 5.5 million people, according to religious officials. Jews in Denmark import their kosher meat. They say that kosher ritual slaughter takes account of animal welfare to a greater degree than the Danish rules. They dispute research that shows pre-stunning is better for animals.

Muslim leaders say their community isn’t as affected by the new rule because most Muslims may consume animals that have been pre-stunned, though more orthodox Muslims do not accept the practice.

“We prefer that an animal not be stunned,” said Muhammad Chaudry, president of the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, a Park Ridge, Ill., organization dedicated to promoting halal food. “But if it’s the only way, we will accept it.”

Even so, Fatih Alev, president of the Danish Islamic Center in Copenhagen, said the government is creating ” a populist initiative” to appeal to anti-Muslim sentiment to gain more votes in the upcoming elections next year. He worries about what’s next.

“Minority religious groups are afraid this ban will lead to other restrictions in the future,” said Alev.

Some say the new rule is hypocritical, pointing to Marius, a young giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo who was killed and fed to lions earlier this month to avoid inbreeding. The death created an uproar at home and abroad.

“It seems as if the priorities are science, animal welfare and religion in that order,” said Johnny Rasmussen, an entrepreneur in the Danish capital. “I am more interested in what animal welfare organizations say about Marius the giraffe.”