By Marcin Goettig
WARSAW (Reuters) - Jewish groups said on Wednesday a Polish court ruling on methods used to slaughter livestock could halt the production of kosher meat, threatening their religious freedom in a country where Nazi Germany massacred millions of Jews in World War Two.
Poland's Constitutional court this week reinforced a law that states livestock has to be stunned before slaughter, ruling out the practice stipulated by the Jewish faith of slaughtering the animal by slitting its throat while it is still conscious.
The court took up the case after lobbying from animal rights groups who said the kosher method was cruel. But the case has inflamed religious sensitivities in Poland against the backdrop of the Holocaust when Poland was under German occupation.
"While it may not be their intention, those who seek to proscribe Jewish traditions in general and shechitah (kosher slaughter) in particular are reminding the Jewish community of far darker times," Aryeh Goldberg of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe said in a statement.
"We call on the Polish government to find a legal caveat which will ensure the continuation of shechitah, which is such an important part of Jewish life ... all over the world and particularly in Poland," Goldberg said.
The European Jewish Association called the ruling "devastating to Jewish welfare and freedom of religion", and said it was sending a letter of protest to the Polish president.
Animal rights activists have challenged religious slaughter customs in France and the Netherlands, mostly in terms of halal slaughter by Muslims, which like kosher slaughter requires animals to be conscious when killed.
The Polish dispute has echoes of a case in neighboring Germany this year. There, a court ruling outlawing circumcision of young boys on medical grounds raised an outcry from Jews and Muslims, who said it curtailed their religious freedom. The German ruling is to be overturned by new legislation.
Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish community before the outbreak of war in 1939, but the Holocaust all but wiped it out. Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz and Treblinka were located on Polish soil.
The Jewish community in Poland now numbers about 8,000, according to official figures, though community leaders say the real number is higher. Poland's population stands at 37 million.
Small quantities of kosher or halal meat are produced for Poland's Jewish and Muslim communities. In addition, Polish slaughterhouses have begun exporting to countries such as Turkey and Israel, and so have increased the quantities of livestock killed in accordance with religious rules.
Jewish groups say the kosher method of slaughtering meat does not cause unnecessary suffering to the animal.
Poland has for years had a law requiring that vertebrate animals are stunned before they are killed in abattoirs. The agriculture ministry issued a decree waiving this requirement in cases where it clashed with religious rules.
The constitutional court, in its ruling this week, which cannot be appealed, said that the ministry's waiver was unlawful and would cease to apply from the beginning of next year.
European Union legislation does allow for slaughter according to Jewish and Muslim rites, but there is uncertainty over whether, in this case, the Polish or EU legislation takes precedence.
Piotr Kadlcik, head of the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland, said that besides the substance of the court's ruling, he was troubled by the tone of the debate surrounding it.
"The outrageous atmosphere in the Polish media surrounding shechitah reminds me precisely of the similar situation in Poland and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s," he told Reuters.
"The style of these media reports was really similar: the (allegations of) disgusting practices and big business for a certain group of people. The tribunal may have felt obliged to react more promptly given this kind of hue and cry."
(Reporting by Marcin Goettig; Editing by Mark Heinrich)