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Debate over circumcision ruling rages in Germany

13 july 2012, 15:50
0
A baby boy is circumcised. ©REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
A baby boy is circumcised. ©REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
A German court decision branding the Muslim and Jewish rite of circumcising baby boys a criminal act has left disbelief, outrage and serious legal questions in its wake, AFP reports.

A cartoon in Sunday's edition of Berlin daily Tagesspiegel cast the dispute over the ruling published last month as a high-stakes struggle between religious beliefs and European secular values.

Sitting on a cloud, God reads about the Cologne court's judgement then telephones Allah and Jehovah, saying: "We've got to talk -- the atheists are getting more and more full of themselves."

The ruling said circumcision of male infants on religious grounds was tantamount to grievous bodily harm, a criminal act.

It concerned a case brought against a doctor who had circumcised a four-year-old Muslim boy in line with his parents' wishes.

When, a few days after the operation, the boy suffered heavy bleeding, prosecutors charged the doctor.

The court later acquitted the doctor himself of causing harm but judged that "the right of a child to keep his physical integrity trumps the rights of parents" to observe their religion, potentially setting a precedent.

European Muslim and Jewish groups have banded together to criticise the ruling, with the support of top Christian clerics, and called on German MPs to pass legislation protecting the practice.

A recent poll on the issue shows that 56 percent of Germans agree with the court -- among them Georg Ehrmann, president of German children's charity Deutsche Kinderhilfe.

"Religious communities should share in the consensus that a minor should have the right to an undamaged childhood," he said.

But 35 percent of people believe the ruling is wrong.

This clash of cultures, known as "Kulturkampf" in German, has filled column inches in recent days.

And German diplomats admit the decision has been "disastrous" for the image of the country abroad, amid international outcry over the ruling.

"The Cologne ruling is very troubling to us since circumcision is one of the rites Jews died for over generations," Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said.

"I am very concerned we will revert back to 500-600 years ago and conduct circumcisions in secret. I hope the issue will be resolved in Germany through legislation."

Israeli Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein told AFP that "from the Jewish perspective, a circumcision ban is the most severe prohibition possible," compared to other bans such as on ritual slaughter.

"If we let this pass (in Germany), there will be no way to stop it from spreading to other European states."

Edelstein, however, noted the "positive potential" to the ruling as it applies to Muslims and Jews alike.

"It could happen that joint action on this could do something to bring the two communities closer, and possibly prevent anti-Semitism from extreme Islamist elements."

Edelstein mentioned two debates held in Israel's parliament over the issue, one joined by the German envoy to Israel, and recent meetings Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin held in Germany with members of the Bundestag lower house.

"I have the impression the German side understands it is not appropriate for Germany to prohibit circumcisions," Edelstein said.

Early on German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle tried to calm the storm, writing on his Twitter account: "We have to be clear: religious traditions are protected in Germany."

Germany is home to around four million Muslims -- many of whom are of Turkish origin -- and more than 200,000 Jews, as the country has seen a flourishing of Jewish life more than six decades after the Holocaust.

Both Muslims and Jews practise circumcision though the Koran does not impose it, unlike the Torah which says the procedure must be done before the eighth day of a child's life.

Neither wants to have to wait until a child turns 14, the age of religious majority, when he can decide for himself.

Unsure of its legal standing, Germany's chief medical association has advised doctors who routinely perform circumcisions on baby boys on behalf of parents citing religious grounds to refrain.

"We are trying to explain the court's decision but parents are completely confused, they don't get it at all," Gerhard Nerlich, spokesman at Berlin's Jewish Hospital, told.

The facility performs 70-80 circumcisions a year for religious reasons, a third of which are on Jewish boys and the rest on Muslim children.

"It's very surprising and bewildering. We tell people we're really sorry, we have been performing circumcisions for years but now we can't do it any more," said Nerlich.

Religious groups say they they feel excluded from German society.

"Every country in the world" respects the right to circumcision, said Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews, calling the ruling "scandalous".

For Muslims, the judgement is another example of Germany overstepping the mark after rows over animal slaughter and the Islamic headscarf.

"Germany must recognise the diversity that exists in this country, that Muslims, Islam are part of the country, of society," said Ramazan Kuruyuz, who took part in a conference of Muslim groups on the issue in Cologne this month.

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