PARIS, March 2 (AFP) - Muslims in France were urged Friday to exercise extreme caution in the sacrificial slaughter of sheep for the Eid al-Adha feast due to the threat of foot-and-mouth disease.

The Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UIOF) asked Muslims on Friday to use only abattoirs approved by government authorities to slaughter animals for the March 5-6 festival marking the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The French government on Thursday suggested that Muslims forego the ritual slaughter in areas where there was a shortage of sheep due to a destruction of livestock ordered to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

Earlier this week, the French government announced it would destroy some 50, 000 sheep either imported from Britain -- where 32 separate outbreaks of the highly-contagious disease have been confirmed -- or animals which had come in contact with them.

Belgium on Thursday banned the slaughter of all sheep and lambs, even for religious purposes.

In Germany, the price of sheep more than doubled, prompting many of Germany's 3.2 million Muslims to reconsider plans for the festival. "The problem is that we can hardly find any sheep," said Hasan Oezdogan, chairman of Germany's Islamic Council.

Members of the Muslim community in Britain were urged to carry out annual sacrifices -- or Qurbani -- on the occasion of Eid al-Adha outside the country this year.

The feast, also known as Eid al-Kebir, is the second biggest holiday in Islam after Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the month of Ramadan.

France's UIOF said in its open letter to Muslims that it endorsed any decision which would help protect consumers, although it deplored acts "dictated by panic."

"If a ban proves necessary, it should ... be imposed for the appropriate length of time and not just until after the Muslim feast," it said.

On Thursday, the French government said that while there appeared no need at present to ban ritual slaughter, there would likely be a shortage of animals this year due to the large numbers taken off the market for destruction.

The government statement was issued after Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant met leaders of the Muslim community in France.

After that meeting, the assistant to the head of the Paris Mosque, Sheikh Al Sid, described the situation as "very dramatic."

Al Sid said up to 200,000 sheep are slaughtered annually in France on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. France has a four-million strong Muslim community.

Muslim charities such as Bait al Mal al Islami have made alternative arrangements in a number of countries, including by encouraging believers to send money overseas to have a sheep sacrificed on their behalf.

In the Netherlands, for example, a Muslim opting for this solution must send $78 to have a sheep sacrificed in Kosovo, while in Morocco the sacrifice would cost $105 and in Somalia $36.

Foot-and-mouth disease can be passed on in animal faeces and may be borne by the wind in fine droplets for dozens of kilometres (miles).

Though not dangerous to humans, it can also be spread by people breathing or sneezing, and can lurk on clothes and footwear. It's prime danger is that it renders infected animals commercially valueless.

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