Dutch lawmakers are set to ban centuries-old Jewish and Muslim traditions of slaughtering animals, but agreed Wednesday 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 the amendment gives religious groups "a chance to go and investigate what is possible instead of just telling them what they can't do."
"The law as it was presented ... ruled out any possible future development," Van Veldhoven told national broadcaster NOS. "It ruled out that there could be a method other than stunning first that could prevent animals suffering."
But the compromise did little to appease Jewish and Muslim groups who have called the proposed ban an attack on religious freedom.
"This is a crazy way of making laws _ that we have to go and prove what we have long believed," said Ronnie Eisenmann of the Amsterdam Jewish Community. "I think this has just opened the door to more discussion and uncertainty."
Marianne Thieme, leader of the Party for the Animals who introduced the legislation, was adamant the ban will now be introduced and left little hope that Jewish and Islamic butchers would be able to prove their method of slaughtering caused less suffering than if animals are stunned first.
"It is purely hypothetical that there could ever be proof that slaughter without stunning could be more animal-friendly than with stunning, but the amendment gives religious groups the possibility to go and look for that evidence," Thieme said.
A final vote is expected later this week or early next week.
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.
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.
Centrist parties such as D66 and Labor have been wrestling with how to balance their commitment to animal welfare with their long-standing support for religious freedoms.
Religious-based parties, including the Christian Democrats part of the ruling coalition, have refused to support the bill, fearing it will undermine the country's reputation as a bastion of religious tolerance.
"Tolerance is a fundamental part of our national identity," said Christian Democrat Henk-Jan Ormel. "It is remarkable that parties who claim to represent minorities now find animal rights more important than the rights of these minorities."
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.