Germany’s Muslims, Jews demand preservation of right to circumcise

July 08, 2012, Sunday/ 12:17:00

A recent German court ruling that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm and should be deemed illegal has met with harsh criticism from the Muslim and Jewish communities in Germany.

They have urged lawmakers to pass legislation protecting religious freedom -- which, they say, has received a major blow with the ruling.

Some 20 organizations representing most of Germany’s 4 million Muslims said parliament must ensure religious freedom by eliminating the legal uncertainty surrounding the religious practice. “We call on the German Bundestag [lower house] and the government to act as quickly as possible to put an end to this legal insecurity and establish legal safeguards that allow the circumcision of boys,” said Gürcan Mert from the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB), speaking on behalf of the other groups that gathered at a press conference on Wednesday. In a decision that also sparked outrage among the Jewish community, a judge in a Cologne court recently ruled that circumcision of minors for religious reasons constitutes assault even if the boy’s parents consent to the procedure.

The Cologne case involved a Muslim doctor accused of circumcising a 4-year-old boy for religious reasons in November 2010, which led to medical complications. The doctor had reportedly circumcised the boy at his parents’ wish, and a few days after the operation his parents took him to the hospital because he was bleeding heavily. Prosecutors charged the doctor with bodily harm, and the case was taken to court. While the doctor was acquitted on the grounds that he hadn’t broken a law as the legal situation concerning circumcision was unclear, the court issued a ruling that circumcision is against the interests of the child and contravenes his right to choose his religion later in life. “The fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents,” and circumcision on religious grounds should be outlawed, the court stated.

The president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, called the ruling “unprecedented and insensitive,” urging the parliament to protect religious freedom. “The circumcision of newborn boys is a key part of the Jewish religion, practiced for millennia worldwide,” Graumann said.

Another Jewish organization, the European Jewish Parliament (EJP), also condemned the ruling, which it deemed as interfering in a religious rite that goes to the very core of Judaism.

In Judaism, 8-day-old male infants are circumcised, and the procedure is said to seal the “covenant with God.” It is also a religious duty for Muslims and is either carried out on babies or later in childhood -- often as part of a big celebration. According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly one in three males under 15 is circumcised, and around 70 percent of them are Muslims, while 1 percent are Jews.

In a phone interview with Sunday’s Zaman, DİTİB Chairman Professor Ali Dere said the ruling came as a shock for the Jewish and Muslim communities. Dere called for urgent legislation concerning the issue, adding that the ruling made things more difficult for Jewish parents since they get their babies circumcised when they are 8 days old.

“Apart from its religious significance for Jews and Muslims, circumcision is a long-practiced tradition that should be respected. Reducing a tradition to bodily harm and criminalizing it is just recklessness,” Dere further stated.

Although the judgment is not binding for other courts, it left doctors across Germany fearing prosecution. The Muslim and Jewish communities are concerned that it could set a precedent for other courts when ruling on similar cases. A Jewish hospital in Berlin has stopped circumcision until the legal situation is clarified because they worry about the consequences. Under the German criminal code, bodily harm stipulates a sentence of six months to 10 years in prison.

Lawyers say the ruling cannot be appealed since the doctor in Cologne case that sparked the circumcision debate was acquitted. The safest way to prevent doctors and parents from being penalized for bodily injury is to insert wording in the relevant article of the criminal code that religious circumcision doesn’t amount to bodily harm, they say.

Describing the Cologne decision as “a blow to integration,” Ali Kızılkaya, chairman of the Coordinating Council of Muslims in Germany, told Sunday’s Zaman that it is a discriminatory decision against religious minorities that are already struggling to feel fully accepted by German society.

“The decision concerning circumcision casts a shadow on the reputation of Germany as a state based on the rule of law where religious rights are protected. I think a ban [on circumcision] would not be good for Germany and its liberal image,” Kızılkaya said. “I hope this will be corrected soon.”

İhsan Öner, chairperson of the Turkish Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Europe (ATİB), joined Muslims in their call for protection of rights to freely carry out religious practices, including circumcision, saying that it is guaranteed by law that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.

“Not a single boy has so far been harmed due to circumcision, which can also be performed for personal hygiene and as preventive health care,” Öner told Sunday’s Zaman, calling the recent circumcision ruling an affront to Germany’s 4 million Muslims and 100,000 Jews.

The ruling has also created repercussions among German political circles and Christian groups. In a move to calm fears surrounding the decision, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said a legal debate “must not lead to doubts about religious tolerance in Germany” and offered assurance that the free exercise of religion is protected in Germany, including religious traditions.

The head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Hans Ulrich Anke, said it was impossible for the court to find a proper balance between protecting a child’s body and the religious freedom and rights of parents. He said the ruling must be reviewed to clarify the legal situation.

Social Democrat Party of Germany (SPD) deputy Serdar Yüksel, German Green Party co-leader Cem Özdemir and Serkan Tören from the Free Democrat Party (FDP) also added their voices to the chorus of criticism.