Ritual animal slaughter law leaves Muslims and Jews in Belgium facing shortages and price hikes

BRUSSELS – Workers putting the finishing touches on a wall of newly installed shelves in a small grocery store. Three months ago, the same wall was lined with a row of refrigerators filled with halal meat.

But a new law in the Flemish region of Belgium prohibits the practices required for halal and kosher meat. This means that these products have become harder to find and more expensive in recent months.

“I stopped selling meat because I don’t want to sell meat that is not halal,” said Bouihrouchane Mbark, owner of the Aswak Souss supermarket in Brussels.

The Jewish and Muslim communities united to oppose the ban.

With the help of a US legal fund, a group of Muslim and Jewish organizations have filed a lawsuit and are hoping to overturn the new law. The Belgian Constitutional Court heard their arguments in January and is expected to rule on the case in a few weeks.

“Time and time again, the Jewish community is told by senior EU officials that there is no Europe without the Jews. These bans undermine these statements and put Jewish life in danger. “

The groups say the new regulations violate their civil rights, preventing them from freely practicing their religion.

“Jews and Muslims are vulnerable minorities in Belgium and this decision stigmatizes these minority groups,” said Joos Roets, the main council of the Executive of Muslims in Belgium, and the Belgian Coordinating Committee of Islamic Institutions, two organizations. involved in the trial.

Belgian law has long required that animals be stunned before slaughter to avoid unnecessary pain. He did, however, grant an exception for ritual slaughter, a practice in Islamic and Jewish religious laws in which animals are not first stunned. Halal and kosher slaughter require the use of a very sharp knife to slit the animal’s throat in one fell swoop and sever major structures and vessels.

The new law in Flanders entered into force in January removing the religious exception. In the Walloon Region, a similar law will come into force at the end of August.

Halal meat has been difficult to find in outlets like Aswak Souss in Brussels since the entry into force of a new law requiring the prior stunning of animals.Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

Mbark estimates that his supermarket’s sales have declined by 40 to 45 percent due to the ban.

“Before, there were queues at the cash desks, now they’re almost empty. People would come to get meat and leave with all kinds of other things, ”he said.

Many Muslims believe the laws are the result of Islamophobia rather than a concern for animal rights. For Jews, they are also an uncomfortable reminder of a darker time in European history. In 1933, one of the first laws enacted by the Nazis was to ban the slaughter of kosher animals.

Belgium is not the first European country to ban ritual slaughter without stunning. Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia have banned exceptions for religious killings, while Switzerland and Lichtenstein make an exception only for poultry.

Belgium is home to larger populations of Muslims and Jews, who fear restrictions on ritual slaughter will spread further across Europe. There are approximately 500,000 Muslims in Belgium and 30,000 Jews.

Antwerp is home to one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations in Europe.

The Jewish community has long imported beef and lamb from slaughterhouses in France, Hungary and Poland, but the new law forced the closure of a poultry farmer just outside Antwerp.

Antwerp’s kosher butcher, Chaim Goldberg, said the wholesale price of chicken has increased by around 50%.Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

In the small Kosher butcher’s shop in Moszkowitz in Antwerp, the change in legislation resulted in an increase of around 50 percent in the wholesale price of chicken. The store absorbed the financial blow, preferring to keep prices the same until the court verdict is delivered.

If the community loses the lawsuit, the store will likely increase prices by at least 20%.

“If it stays that way, it will be a big deal, but I hope the law is soon overturned,” said butcher Chaim Goldberg, 32.

Some owners of Muslim shops and restaurants have also started importing meat from other European countries, although with recent legislation many are still struggling to find suppliers.

The case has caught the attention of Jewish and Muslim communities outside of Belgium, who hope a victory will prevent other European countries from passing similar laws.

“Time and time again, the Jewish community is told by senior EU officials that there is no Europe without the Jews. These bans undermine these statements and put the lives of Jews in danger, ”Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said in a statement.

The Jewish community’s legal efforts have been aided and partially funded by the New York-based Lawfare Project, a legal fund and civil rights organization that works around the world.

“We don’t believe that these types of laws belong to modern society and that a state shouldn’t be able to restrict the free religious practice of minority communities,” said Brooke Goldstein, founder and director of the Lawfare Project, whose the fund has supported other civil rights cases involving both Jews and Muslims in the United States and Europe.

If the Muslim and Jewish groups lose their cases, they consider taking the case to European courts.

Despite strong objections from the two minority communities, the politician who introduced the legislation in Flanders insists that religion should not exempt anyone from the laws of the country.

“Our beliefs about animal welfare go beyond religious ideas. Why should I [religion] give you more rights? said Ben Weyts, Minister for Animal Welfare of the Flemish Parliament.

Hoffy’s kosher deli and restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium.Susannah Ireland / for NBC News

Responding to criticism that the law was motivated by political or anti-Islam considerations, Weyts maintains that he was inspired solely by animal welfare concerns.

He would eventually like to see the European Union adopt similar legislation, which is widely supported by animal rights activists.

Although the law makes the observance of the ritual more difficult, members of the Jewish and Muslim communities do not intend to leave Belgium immediately.

“Where is better? Said Benjamin Hoffman, the owner of Hoffy’s, a kosher grocery store and restaurant in Antwerp. “It’s a great community. Life here is good. If there is a European law against ritual slaughter, we will have problems.

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