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German Court Decides Against Circumcision

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A scene like this one – a traditional Jewish circumcision ceremony – may soon be a rarity in Germany, if a Cologne court’s unprecedented decision gains traction in other German areas.The shocking decision this past week by a German court to prohibit circumcision on young boys for religious reasons has generated a strong reaction from Jewish leaders in Germany, as well as from a noted Swiss Jewish philanthropist.

The court in Cologne, Germany announced its ruling after reviewing a case concerning a four-year-old Muslim boy who experienced post-operative bleeding two days after undergoing the delicate procedure. The judges pronounced that involuntary religious circumcision should be rendered illegal because it could cause serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. At the same time, the decision – which can only take effect in Cologne – stated that boys who clearly expressed their consent to be circumcised would be allowed to have the operation. The court did not impose any age restriction. Although he was prosecuted for his actions, the physician who circumcised the four-year-old was acquitted by the court, due to the non-existence of any law banning religious circumcision at the time of the procedure.

Reaction to the unexpected ruling came in strong from both Jewish and Muslim organizations. “This decision is an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the right to religious freedom,” declared the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “It is an outrageous and insensitive act.” Noting that circumcision for young boys is an essential part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for millennia, Council President Dieter Graumann stated, “This religious right is respected in every country around the world.”

The Central Council of Muslims in Germany described the ruling as a “blatant and inadmissible interference” in the rights of parents. “Freedom of religion is highly valued in our constitution and cannot be the play-thing of a one-dimensional case law which, furthermore, consolidates existing prejudices and stereotypes,” the Muslim group said in a statement.

In backing up its decision, the German court insisted that “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents”. It went on to assert that “the child’s body is permanently and irreparably changed by the circumcision. This change runs counter to the interests of the child, who can decide his religious affiliation himself later in life.”

The decision also aroused the ire of a prominent Swiss Jewish business leader and philanthropist, Adi Gast, who pledged to contribute the huge amount of ten million Euros to try and overturn the German ban. “The Germans are not the first to attempt to ban circumcision,” Gast commented.  “The Greeks tried it long before the Germans and – as we all know from the story of Chanukah – they were not successful.  This ban is an attempt to stop something that is a symbol that unites the Jewish people.  I call on other businessmen to act quickly and to join me in the fight against this ruling.”

Germany hosts a population of approximately 120,000 Jews and 4 million Muslims. While Jewish law dictates that babies should be circumcised (if health permits) at eight days old, Muslims circumcise their sons at a later age, with the exact time depending on various circumstantial factors.

While the new ruling only affects the area of Cologne, the Central Council of Jews is worried that it may generate similar judicial decisions in other German cities, and thus prevent doctors from performing circumcisions, in order to avoid possible prosecution. The Council called on the German parliament “to provide legal clarity in order to prevent attacks on religious freedom.”

According to an estimate by the World Health Organization, thirty percent of men worldwide are circumcised. In a number of countries, including the United States, many parents choose to have their sons circumcised because they believe it improves hygiene and can cut the risk of the spread of disease. Previous attempts to ban circumcision have been made in Sweden, Norway, Holland, and Finland, as well as in California.

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