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Bull saga highlights religious tensions

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 wide 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 on Thursday at the end of a long and public battle pitting Hindus who revere bulls against authorities who decided that he had to be killed because he had tested positive for tuberculosis.

Officials said they had to prevent the disease's spread. The monks maintained that Shambo could be effectively isolated and said 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 worshipers, cutting their way into a temple, and leading off a healthy-looking bull for slaughter do not play well," it said.

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.

The concerns about the intersection of religion and law often cut across conventional political lines.

When Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed last week that Britain extend the time it can hold terrorism suspects without charge, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats objected -- joining Muslims who said such a measure would single them out for further police pressure.

Concerns about government interference also lead to occasional cooperation among faiths.

A Church of Wales bishop, Carl Cooper, recently wrote that the airline's cross controversy and some moves to limit Muslim women wearing veils show "freedom of religious expression should be valued and respected, not least by our political leaders."

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," group spokesman Sanjay Mistry said. He did not offer any alternatives.

For some, the only option is to follow 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 said the Shambo controversy "must have cost the public purse many tens of thousands of pounds in legal action and already hard-stretched police time."

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