AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Dutch parliament voted on Tuesday to ban ritual slaughter of animals, a move strongly opposed by the country's Muslim and Jewish minorities, but left a loophole that might let religious butchering continue.
The bill by the small Animal Rights Party, the first such group in Europe to win seats in a national parliament, passed the lower house of parliament by 116 votes to 30. It must be approved by the upper house before becoming law.
It stipulates that livestock must be stunned before being slaughtered, contrary to the Muslim halal and Jewish kosher laws that require animals to be fully conscious.
"This way of killing causes unnecessary pain to animals. Religious freedom cannot be unlimited," said Marianne Thieme, head of the Animal Rights Party, said before the vote. "For us religious freedom stops where human or animal suffering begins."
In a rare show of unity, the Netherlands' Muslim and Jewish communities -- numbering about 1 million and 40,000 respectively in a total population of 16 million -- have condemned the proposed ban as a violation of their religious freedom.
"The very fact that there is a discussion about this is very painful for the Jewish community," Netherlands Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs told Reuters.
"Those who survived the (second world) war remember the very first law made by the Germans in Holland was the banning of schechita or the Jewish way of slaughtering animals."
Uca Octay of Rotterdam's Islamic University said: "We will have to import halal meat from neighboring countries or find another way to meet the needs of the Muslim population."
The law said religious groups could continue ritual slaughter if they proved it was no more painful than stunning, but it was not clear how to do this. The Jewish community has challenged a study on animal pain used to support the ban.
"This is absolutely impossible to prove," Jacobs said. "You can't ask the animal how it feels afterwards."
Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks visited the Netherlands last week to lobby against the law, arguing that pre-stunning failed in up to 10 percent of cases and that caused more pain than the swift cutting of the throat by a razor-sharp knife.
Philip Carmel, International Relations Director for the Conference of European Rabbis in Brussels, stressed the upper house of parliament could still reject the law. "We believe the Dutch parliament and people, who have a history of tolerance, will see sense and make the right decision," he said.
Dutch Muslims, mostly of Turkish and Moroccan origin, have complained they felt stigmatized by the planned ban, debated amid growing support for anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders.
A court cleared Wilders last week of charges of hate speech against Muslims. His Freedom Party has supported the ban.
"There was no reason for passing this law," said Imam Mahmut of the El Tawheed mosque in Amsterdam. "This is a political decision. Who has the authority to determine whether the way of killing animals is good or not?"
European Union regulations require animals to be stunned before killing but allow exceptions for ritual slaughter, which the European Court of Human Rights has ruled is a religious right. Animal rights activists insisit this is inhuman.
Carmel said the European Parliament last week rejected a bid by animal rights advocates to have kosher and halal meat specially labeled as coming from unstunned animals.
Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland ban ritual slaughter. Swiss animal rights groups and far-right politicians have called for a ban on imported halal and kosher meat.
Of the 500 million animals slaughtered annually for food in the Netherlands, only 1.2 million animals are slaughtered according to Muslim or Jewish traditions, Dutch statistics show.
Additional reporting by Roberta B. Cowan; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Mark Trevelyan