Jews and Muslims in Belgium could face difficulty finding food prepared according to their religious rules, as new animal slaughter regulations banning kosher or halal slaughter began to take effect on January 1.
Joos Roets, a lawyer who represents a group of Islamic institutions, argued that the ban was intended to stigmatize some religious groups rather than its stated purpose, to protect animals from suffering. The government could have taken other steps to protect animals “without violating the Belgian freedom of religion,” Roets told the New York Times.
Both Muslim and Jewish rules regarding animal slaughter require that the animals be in perfect health at the time of slaughter. They are to be killed with a single cut to the neck.
European Union rules and rules in European countries require that animals be made insensible to pain before slaughter. This means techniques like knocking animals out with gas, delivering an electric shock to small animals like poultry, or using a “captive bolt” device that fires a metal rod to the brain of larger animals, the New York Times reports.
Religious authorities say some of these measures, like stunning an animal, violate their slaughter requirements. Some advocates of kosher and halal slaughter say animals lose consciousness in seconds under their methods and may even suffer less.
Ann De Greef, director of the Belgium-based Global Action in the Interest of Animals, argued that stunning does not conflict with the religious rules.
De Greef was also disdainful towards the religious practices of the law’s critics.
“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 that will stay like that.”
The law at present applies to Flanders and a similar law will take effect in Wallonia later in 2019.
Ben Weyts, a right-wing Flemish nationalist who oversees animal welfare as a minister in the Flanders government, proposed the ban. Right-wing leaders in several countries, many of whom oppose growing Muslim populations, have opposed religious slaughter practices, the New York Times reports.
Most countries and the EU have religious exemptions to the requirement to stun animals. The Belgian rules do not.
There are over 30,000 Jews and about 500,000 Muslims in Belgium, out of 11 million people. Those who adhere to the slaughter rules will have to order meat from other countries. This will mean paying more and possibly facing food shortages.
Antwerp has one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe, with many Hasidic communities and “an abundance of kosher restaurants,” the European Jewish Congress said.
Yaakov David Schmahl, a rabbi of Antwerp, reflected on fears the Belgium rules conceal anti-religious bigotry under animal protection concerns.
It is impossible to know people’s true intentions unless they state it clearly, “but most anti-Semites don’t do that,” he told the New York Times.
He also voiced concern about a new Belgian law regulating homeschooling, a common practice for his Jewish community, as another example of a European trend he said makes it more difficult for observant Jews to live according to their practices.
Saatci Bayram, a leading Belgian Muslim, said when the government sought advice about the ban Muslims were critical but the government did not take their advice.
“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,” Bayram said. “Our way of ritual slaughtering is painless.”
Menachem Margolin, chairman of the European Jewish Association, said the law “sets a bad example for other countries.”
“This puts a shadow on our community and Jewish laws, as it is essentially saying that we cannot be trusted with the welfare of animals – that we need government supervision,” he told the Israeli international news station i24. “This is a terrible precedent to set on an international level.”
In September 2013 the Polish bishops’ conference spoke out against a national law banning kosher and halal slaughter, citing longstanding Polish recognition of religious freedom and “the right to maintain one’s own traditions and customs.” Jews and Muslims have the right “to preserve their customs, including the ritual slaughter of animals,” the bishops said.
The bishops’ conference backed the view “that Jewish religious communities and believers of Islam are entitled to preserve and implement their fundamental rights to freedom of religion and worship.”
Poland’s high court overturned the law in 2014.