European rabbis are holding an emergency meeting today in Berlin after a German court said circumcising children for religious reasons amounts to bodily harm even if parents agree to it.
The three-day gathering is to map out a strategy to address a ruling by a district court in Cologne that has sparked condemnations from Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders, the Conference of European Rabbis said.
The decision “is a frontal attack on Jewish life in Europe,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, who leads the conference, said in a phone interview. “We see this as part of a trend of mounting intolerance against religious practices in Europe.”
The ruling may spark political tension between Israel and Germany. An Israeli parliamentary committee yesterday denounced the ruling after it met with Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador to Israel. An estimated six million Jews died under the Nazis during the Holocaust in World War II.
Germany, home to about 4 million Muslims and 110,000 Jews, is working to resolve the issue, Michaelis told the panel.
“We’re happy that the German government understands the significance of this ruling,” Goldschmidt said, adding that the court failed to consider how important ritual circumcision is to the Jewish faith and culture.
The issue of circumcision touches on key aspects of the German constitution, including religious freedom and parental rights, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheuser Schnarrenberger said in an e-mailed statement to Bloomberg today. “That’s why a precedent-setting decision by the Federal Court of Justice or the Federal Constitutional Court would be the best way forward,” Leutheuser Schnarrenberger said in the statement.
Along with being virtually universal among Muslims and Jews, male circumcision is common in North America and most of West Africa because it is considered hygienic. The World Health Organization, which says male circumcision lowers the risk of acquiring the HIV virus by about 60 percent, says about 30 percent of males were circumcised as of 2006.
Norbert Geis, a lawmaker with the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said the ruling is a “misjudgement.”
Lawmakers will have to act if the current insecurity among religious groups and doctors persists, Geis said, adding that he’s confident other courts would decide differently.
“I’d imagine that such a bill would be backed by a broad majority across all parties,” Geis said of any measure to ensure circumcision is allowed to continue in Germany.
Bodily Harm Charges
The legal controversy began in Nov. 2010, when a Muslim couple living in Cologne asked a doctor to circumcise their 4-year-old son. The doctor circumcised the boy using a local anaesthetic before treating the wound with four stitches. Two days after the procedure, the mother rushed her son to the hospital after the wound began bleeding. The hospital contacted the police, who started an investigation that led to bodily harm charges against the doctor.
While the Cologne court in its decision, dated May 7, acquitted the doctor because of the legal uncertainty at the time, it ruled male circumcision, even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if carried out on a boy unable to give his consent.
The child’s body would be “permanently and irreparably changed,” the court said in its decision. The procedure goes “against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to which religion he wishes to belong,” it said.
While the ruling has no legally binding effect outside this case, it may “send a signal” to other German courts, said Holm Putzke, a law professor at Passau University. A doctor circumcising a child not old enough to consent is now at much greater risk of committing a crime, Putzke said by phone.
Putzke, who wrote a legal analysis on the issue in 2008, said he supports the court’s decision because it reflects “the prevailing legal opinion” that circumcising a boy at such a young age is medically unnecessary.
“I can understand that this verdict has irritated people, but this irritation can be resolved if people look at the reasoning,” Putzke said. “It’s not about banning religious circumcision, it’s about delaying it until a child can decide for himself.”
The Jewish community argues that male circumcision, a 4,000-year-old tradition, is integral to its faith. The Cologne verdict has made Jews in and outside Germany “very apprehensive,” Goldschmidt said.
The Berlin meeting of about 40 rabbis from around Europe will include updates on the legal situation in Germany, an overview of worldwide health and public policy toward circumcision and a proposed strategy for addressing this issue to the general public, the conference said in a statement.
“This court ruling could have huge ramifications for the Jewish community far beyond the confines of Germany, if it is allowed to stand,” Rabbi Avichai Apel, a board member of the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany, said in the statement. The meeting “will enable us to consider together how best to continue to respond, both within and outside of Germany.”