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It is impossible to eat meat without violence. An animal, after all, has to be killed before it can be consumed. And that means Jessica Smith, a Hindu, doesn't eat meat.
"It has to do with the Hindu belief in non-violence," the 32-year-old Toronto resident says. "And reincarnation."
Smith, who converted to Hinduism three years ago, says a basic tenet of her faith is that all living things have souls, with many revered as manifestations of God. In such a faith, empathy for animals seems natural.
"It's as ancient as the faith," says Smith, who helped start Canada's only vegetarian food bank.
In fact, it's an impulse as ancient as most faiths. The Hebrew Bible, known as the Old Testament to Christians and considered a holy book in Islam, for instance, instructs man to care for creation – including the animals.
So it is not surprising that animal welfare groups are drawing a connection between religious teachings and animal rights.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States — the first non-clergy to run the society in almost 40 years — made the point during a vegan lunch at a recent religion writers' conference in Washington.
All people of faith should work to improve the welfare of animals, Pacelle said. "They (animals) have the same spark of life as we have."
The society recently launched Eating Mercifully, a film about evangelical Christians whose faith has led them to be animal welfare advocates, running sanctuaries for abused animals and lobbying against factory farms.
At the formal launch of the film last weekend at a Washington cathedral, Pacelle said: "It's a sign of a merciful people to be good to these other creatures."
The campaign, dubbed "All Creatures Great and Small," is not looking to reinterpret anybody's religion, but to "awaken" people to what their scriptures say about animal cruelty and humankind's responsibility to care for animals.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), also made an appeal to faith communities when, several years ago, it set up the jesusveg.com website http://www.jewish.com and launched a campaign arguing that Jesus was a vegetarian.
"Jesus's message is one of love and compassion, yet there is nothing loving or compassionate about factory farms and slaughterhouses, where billions of animals live miserable lives and die violent, bloody deaths," PETA says on the website.
A Case for Jewish Vegetarianism, a pamphlet handed out at Toronto's annual Vegetarian Fair, argues that the ethical underpinnings of Jewish dietary laws point toward "the ideal of vegetarianism."
The website jewishveg.com makes similar arguments.
The push has come from more conservative circles, as well. In 2002, Matthew Scully, an evangelical one-time staffer in the George. W. Bush White House, published Dominion: The Power of Man, The Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Its cover featured a lamb, often considered a symbol for Jesus, tethered and dying, against a black background.
The bestseller told evangelicals they had a God-given responsibility to look after creation, making the link between faith and animal rights that activists now hope to draw on. The movement, still getting its footing in the United States, has yet to move north — though campaigners here recognize the potential.
"It's an area we are just starting to explore," says David Alexander, director of operations for the Toronto Vegetarian Association.
Christine Gutleben is director of the Humane Society's animals and religion program. She says the campaign has been endorsed by ministers and priests from several Christian denominations, as well as rabbis and imams. Their comments have been posted on the society's website for the campaign, allcreatures.hsus.org.
"It's a common aspect of all the major religions," Gutleben said. "We just want to help make the connection."
Stuart Laidlaw, Faith and Ethics Reporter for The Toronto Star when this article was published in October 2008.
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