German circumcision ban incites new religious controversy in Europe

The ruling of a court in Cologne in June to ban circumcision of young boys for religious reasons has riled Muslims and Jews alike. 

• A  summary of global reports on the German court ruling.

A German court set off religious controversy late last week with its ruling that the circumcision of young boys on religious grounds is illegal. Some commentators categorize the ban as just one of many legislative restrictions on religious minorities in Germany, and as part of growing religious intolerance in Europe.

Reuters reports that the Cologne court took action after police were alerted by a doctor who treated the 4-year-old son of first-generation Turkish immigrants Muhsin Sapci and his wife, Gonca, for bleeding after the boy underwent circumcision. A prosecutor sued the doctor in court.

The court ruled that the removal of the boy’s foreskin amounted to bodily harm and involved intolerable health risks. The Economist writes that circumcision was deemed to violate Germany’s constitutional protection of individuals' physical integrity – religious freedom and parents’ rights came second – and thus should be considered a crime. The court further suggested waiting until the age of 14 so boys themselves could decide whether to be circumcised.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened over the court’s decision last Friday by promising the Muslim and Jewish communities that they are free to circumcise their children. Meanwhile, the Guardian writes that the government is urgently looking for a way around the ban.  

Medical risk

Given the legal uncertainty, medical practitioners are afraid lay people will start performing the operation, and ritual circumcisions will go underground. The New York Times reports that the German Medical Association condemned the court's decision for potentially exposing children to medical risk, but it also warned surgeons not to perform circumcisions for religious reasons until legal clarity was established.

“Right now everything is controlled, most people go to a doctor and the child is covered by insurance,” Muhsin Sapci, the young boy’s father said. “If they try to outlaw it, it will still be done, but differently, and that could have consequences.”

Public outcry

Germany is home to 4 million Muslims, the second biggest community in Europe, and to about 120,000 Jews. In a rare display of religious unity, the leaders of both faiths teamed up in Brussels and Berlin last week to demand a reversal of the ban.

The Economist writes that Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, asserted that the verdict, if it is upheld, “would make Jewish life in Germany, just as it is blooming again, practically impossible.”

He also condemned the decision as “an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the self-determination of religious communities” and urged the German Parliament to pass legislation protecting circumcision as a religious practice, in an interview with The New York Times. 

The ruling is particularly sensitive in a Germany still haunted by memories from the Holocaust. It has caused many to wonder whether the court would have ruled differently had the case involved a Jewish boy, instead of a young Muslim, the paper further notes.

The court's judgment has drawn criticism from international players as well. The Associated Press reports that an Israeli parliamentary committee has denounced the ruling, stating that the circumcision of baby boys, eight days after their birth, is a fundamental Jewish right.

Laughing stock

The public outcry prompted Ms. Merkel to publicly criticize the court’s ruling and call for an urgent solution. A German Justice Ministry spokeswoman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that legislative action might be needed to protect religious traditions in the wake of the court ruling, in an interview with The Associated Press. So far, the ruling applies only to the area of the Cologne court’s jurisdiction.

Agence France-Presse writes that Bild, a German daily, reported Tuesday that Merkel warned the board of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that Germany must restore legal protection for circumcision in order to restore the country’s image.

“I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practice their rites,” Merkel is reported to have said. “Otherwise we would make ourselves a laughing stock among nations." 

Growing intolerance

The appearance of religious intolerance has been a particularly sensitive point in increasingly secular Western Europe.

The Associated Press reports that Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow and the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said the court's decision was part of what he saw as growing infringement upon religious freedom in Europe.

"We see this development as part of the larger problem in Europe today," he said, citing France's ban on face-covering Muslim veils and Switzerland's ban on the construction of new minarets for mosques.

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