WARSAW, Poland (AP) — For some, it was a barbaric way to treat animals. For others, it was great business.
Until January, slaughterhouses across Poland — a deeply Catholic nation — were the unlikely venues for the Islamic and Jewish slaughter of animals, which in both religions involves a swift cut to the throat of a conscious animal and death by bleeding.
Millions of euros were being made exporting the halal and kosher meat to countries like Egypt, Iran and Israel, as well as to Muslim and Jewish markets inside Europe.
In a victory for a growing animal rights movement, activists succeeded in getting a ban on such religious slaughter. But with economic decline deepening and exports seen as a possible salvation, the government faces pressure to get the practice reinstated legally — and is scrambling to do so.
Though Poland's own cuisine is heavy in pork, a meat banned by Jewish and Islamic laws, the country has cut out this niche business for itself in one example of the economic savvy Poland has shown since joining the European Union in 2004. Kosher and halal meat exports have grown between 20 and 30 percent per year in recent years as the largely agricultural country has capitalized on its low labor costs and a reputation for healthy farm animals.
"God gave us good food, good soil and good farm animals, and he gave the Muslim countries what they have under the surface — black gold," said Mufti Tomasz Miskiewicz, the top Muslim leader in Poland. "There are nations with big populations — like Egypt, the Arab countries, Indonesia — that need this food and don't have enough cattle to produce enough meat themselves."
The business has been overseen and encouraged by Poland's Jewish and Muslim communities, minorities that are very small but with a presence going back many centuries. Polish Jews once made up the world's largest Jewish population; though nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, the community is growing. Tatars, a Muslim people, also settled here centuries ago, and have been joined recently by Arab diplomats, businessmen and students.
The kosher and halal business had boomed until January, when the ban took effect following a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal. Though the actual slaughter was carried out by specially trained Muslim and Jewish officials, the industry also created thousands of supporting jobs for others.
Animal rights activists argue that killing animals without stunning them first causes unnecessary suffering to the animals. Jewish and Muslim leaders strongly disagree, and insist that their method is actually more humane, in part became it causes the animals to lose consciousness very fast. They argue that standard industrial slaughter involves pre-stunning that is sometimes not effective, leading to even greater suffering.
Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, says Jewish tradition has always been concerned with the welfare of animals, noting, for instance, that it bans hunting and any senseless suffering.
"For close to 3,000 years, Jewish slaughter practices have been followed that minimize pain to the animal," Schudrich said.
Polish meat industry officials are hesitant to take sides on which slaughter method causes more suffering, with their focus firmly on economics.
The pro-market government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk is also eager to get the business going again and has recently drafted a law that would reinstate religious slaughter while also adding some new protections for animals.
The law's fate now rests with parliament, which is due to debate and vote on it in the coming weeks. It is expected to pass since the government enjoys majority support in the assembly, but probably not without some heated debate. Lawmakers are under pressure from all sides, including from an animal rights movement that has grown stronger as the ex-communist country grows increasingly Westernized.
In the meantime, industry leaders warn that millions of euros and thousands of jobs could be lost if Poland doesn't re-legalize religious slaughter soon.
"Banning ritual slaughter was a cardinal mistake with huge consequences," said Witold Choinski, the head of Polskie Mieso, or Polish Meat, an organization that represents the interests of meat producers.
Choinski said there are no official figures on the financial losses so far, but the number is high: the industry is worth about 500 million euros ($650 million) per year to the Polish economy and it has been largely frozen for nearly half a year. About 100,000 tons of kosher or halal beef and 100,000 tons of poultry were exported annually before the ban — making up between 20 and 30 percent of Poland's beef exports and about 10 percent of poultry exports, Choinski said.
He says there is currently no production at all of the religiously slaughtered meat, though Miskiewicz and others say there is some small-scale production taking place in a legal gray zone.
Many of the Polish meat facilities which handle kosher and halal meat — usually in addition to traditional slaughter — have had to limit their overall production because of the ban, while major contracts with traders from the Middle East have been suspended, Choinski said.
Poland had been close to sealing major long-term contracts with Saudi Arabia, but these were abandoned because of the unclear legal situation. Meanwhile, many Polish companies that produce halal and kosher meat are on the verge of bankruptcy, and up to 6,000 workers could lose their jobs, he said.
"Poland can't afford this. Most meat production facilities are in small places without other places for people to work and this is dooming the economic prospects of people," he said. "But I think there will be a resolution because no government can allow 6,000 people to get laid off during an economic crisis."
For now, business is being picked up by producers in nearby countries, including Latvia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Miskiewicz said.
Bosnia is also working hard to position itself as an exporter of halal products. The country opened its first halal fair Wednesday in Sarajevo, welcoming representatives of the Islamic world to take a look at Bosnian products. Erdal Trhulj, Bosnia's regional industry minister, said the halal industry is growing worldwide, and that his country "aims to become a hub for halal industry in this part of Europe."
The debate surrounding the issue has lacked any overt anti-Jewish or anti-Islamic tones, though religious rights are also pressing concern for the minorities and a government that wants to maintain good ties with them.
Miskiewicz says there is a degree of unfairness in banning Jewish and Islamic slaughter when so many Polish Catholics follow a similar practice themselves at Christmas, when carp are slaughtered in homes across the nation without any pre-stunning.
Associated Press writer Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia, contributed to this report.
Follow Vanessa Gera at twitter.com/VanessaGera