German circumcision ban incites new religious controversy in Europe

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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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tom Tobin on 07/18/2012 - 09:46 am.

    fair is fair

    Either circumcision is ethical for every child, or it is ethical for no child.
    It is hypocritical to outlaw it for girls, and not for boys.
    German courts did the right thing. They landed on the conservative side. Once half of the skin of a genital is removed, it’s gone forever. If the kid wants to decide to embrace a different religion when they are old enough, about 20,000 nerves are still gone. The Swedish Paediatric Society calls circumcision “child abuse” and “assault”. A kid should not be welcomed into this world with a bloody surgery they don’t need, and a permanent scar and loss of sensation. Foreskins protect.
    Nobody says that Russian Jews are any less Jewish, and they do not traditionally circumcise.
    Why is circumcision OK, simply because the kid can’t say “no”? You can’t tattoo them, even though it removes nothing. It is a socially sanctioned amputation, and the only surgery a kid doesn’t need which is very likely to be performed on them. You can’t circumcise a dog, cat, or girl.
    Why are the whole genitals of a boy assigned less of a value?
    As far as health, there is no disease that circumcision prevents, or cures. The African studies have holes large enough to drive a truck through. No country has embraced them as legitimate, yet the WHO’s medical propaganda machine is working triple overtime. Do you believe Drs. Tobian and Gray when they proclaim that circumcision is like a vaccine? Tell it to the million mostly circumcised men who have died of AIDS in the US.
    Does Merkel want to live in a country, where girls can be circumcised, to avoid offending Muslims? Or a sexist society? Or does she want to risk offending in the name of religion, to give people the right to choose which healthy body parts they want to keep?

    • Submitted by Julia Dehl on 07/18/2012 - 08:14 pm.

      Thank you!

      I tried to find out what people in other countries think about germans and that theme.
      A lot of people here(53-74%) are against it, but tomorrow we will get a new law by goverment that legalize religious circumcision. Why?You can`t crizisize anything that is done by muslim immigrants or jewish people- otherwise you are Nazi,islamophob or racist.Even newspapers and tv channels act like that!(Ridiculous in my case: wife of an turkey muslim with 4 children).
      The german societies of pediatric doctors,urology doctors and the society of surgery for children are against it and regard it as a torture for boys.
      We ARE a laughing stock among nations: Human rights are gone…

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