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WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's parliament on Friday rejected a government-backed bill that would have allowed slaughterhouses to produce kosher meat, angering Jewish groups who said the decision violated their religious rights.
Lawmakers who opposed the bill said they did so because kosher slaughter is cruel to livestock. Jewish groups said prejudice about their faith - a sensitive subject in a country where occupying Nazis killed millions of Jews - had played a part.
"Populism, superstition and political interests won out," said Piotr Kadlcik, who heads the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland. "It looks like we've made a full circle and are heading back to what happened in Poland and Germany in the 1930s."
Usually, slaughterhouses stun livestock before killing them, while kosher rites demand an animal is killed by slitting its throat while it is alive and allowing it to bleed to death. The halal meat consumed by observant Muslims is killed in a similar way.
The government had hoped the proposed law would allow Polish abattoirs to resume production of kosher meat, which was forced to stop last year by the constitutional court.
Some Jewish community leaders said the tone of the debate around the issue echoed the kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric seen in Europe before World War Two.
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.
"Jewish communities across Europe will be incredibly distressed that the Polish parliament has voted not to protect the religious freedom of its Jewish and Muslim citizens," said Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, head of the Conference of European Rabbis.
Activists have challenged religious slaughter customs in France and the Netherlands, mostly concentrating on halal slaughter by Muslims.
Industry groups in Poland have said banning halal and kosher meat production would stop firms from exporting to markets in Israel and the Middle East.
Opponents of the practice said that was no justification. "Even if we were talking about significant losses - and we're not - there is no permission for animal cruelty in the name of money," said Andrzej Rozenek, a leader of the leftist Palikot Movement.
The bill's defeat is a setback for Prime Minister Donald Tusk after 38 deputies from his own Civic Platform (PO) joined the opposition to defeat it.
"We urge Poland's legislative and judicial authorities to move expeditiously to recognize by law the Jewish community's right to prepare kosher meat according to Jewish tradition," David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
"It would be beyond shocking if a democratic Poland prevented kosher slaughter, which is so integral to Jewish life in the country," Harris added.
Earlier this month, Tusk's party, which has trailed the main rightist opposition party in recent polls, lost an election for mayor of one of its former strongholds. One of PO's leaders faces a recall vote as mayor of Warsaw.
Reporting by Chris Borowski, Marcin Goettig and Hubert Humka; editing by Andrew Roche