Tension remains as Britons complain of religious interference

Sunday, July 29, 2007

LONDON -- A Hindu monastery in a quiet corner of Wales seems an unlikely locale for dissent. But the seizure of Shambo the bull from Skanda Vale and his subsequent slaughter underlined the difficulties Britain faces in accommodating its array of religions.

Hindus, Muslims and Christians have seized on the Shambo case to complain that the government is interfering in their spiritual lives.

Shambo was taken away from the monastery Thursday at the end of a long and public battle between Hindus who revere bulls and authorities who said he must be killed because he had tested positive for tuberculosis.

Officials said they had to prevent the disease's spread. The monks argued that Shambo could be effectively isolated and claimed the death sentence trampled on their religious rights.

More than 100 devotees prayed and chanted in front of the bull for hours, trying to prevent authorities from taking him; police eventually had to drag some away.

Christians have also complained of state interference in their spiritual lives.

Some groups criticized a court decision this month banning a teenage girl from wearing a "chastity ring" at school. They were also upset over a British Airways directive that a flight attendant could not wear a cross where it was visible to passengers.

The Guardian newspaper commented Friday that the Shambo case was "utterly disastrous" for the government's image.

"Images of burly police officers carrying off Hindu worshippers, cutting their way into a temple and leading off a healthy-looking bull for slaughter do not play well," it said.

After the Shambo slaughter, Britain's Hindu Forum called for a meeting with the government's environment secretary to discuss how other temple animals could be protected.

"There need to be other options than killing. That's the only option they have offered," group spokesman Sanjay Mistry said. He did not lay out any proposals, however.

For some, the only option is to follow the letter of the law, regardless of religious concerns.

"We do not live in a theocracy, and democratically enacted legislation must be observed and respected by everyone," said Keith Porteous Wood, director of the National Secular Society.

He also complained that the Shambo controversy was "religious belligerence [that] must have cost the public purse many tens of thousands of pounds in legal action and already hard-stretched police time."

There may be more controversy to come at the monastery.

The Welsh Assembly, the regional government, said Friday that a post-mortem on Shambo confirmed he had tuberculosis and this means other animals in Skanda Vale's menagerie may be infected and potentially subject to slaughter.

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