Jews and Muslims Unite Against German Court Ruling that religious Circumcision is a ‘Bodily Injury’ (“The Worst Attack on Jewish Life in Germany Since the Holocaust”)

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(26 Juni 2012 – Urteil des Landgerichts Köln; Beschneidung ist Körperverletzung)

In the last few days a subject has featured in the German press which has awoken painful memories and served to unite Jews and Muslims against what they see as an attack by a German Court on their religious freedom.

This issue relates to the legality of the circumcision of boys for religious reasons.

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin from the penis. It is obligatory for Jewish born boys and normally performed on the eighth day of life as part of the Covenant of circumcision (Brit or Bris Milah) ceremony. Jews consider that the ritual is a reminder of the holy covenant between God and the tribal forefather Abraham. Circumcision is also practiced under Islam where some scholars consider it to be obligatory whereas others simply recommend it. It is not mentioned in the Qur’an but is in the hadith or Khitan and Islamic scholars also describe it as being based on the covenant with Abraham. Therefore circumcision, like other key elements of their early history, is something that these two religions have in common.

The uproar in Germany arose specifically as a result of a Cologne Court decision. On 26th June a district court in Cologne ruled on a case involving circumcision. The ruling stated that a child’s “fundamental right to physical integrity” took precedence over his parents’ rights to carry out a religious practice. The Court’s view was that by accepting this viewpoint the child’s religious freedom would not be impaired because he would be able to decide himself, later in life, whether he wished to be circumcised.

In this case a four-year old Muslim boy was involved. In accordance with their Islamic traditions the parents of this boy requested that he be circumcised by a doctor. However, because complications arose he needed to be treated in a local hospital. Local prosecutors became aware of the situation and initiated proceedings against the doctor. The resultant German court ruling meant that circumcision could be interpreted as the illegal bodily injury of a child.

Although this was only a district court and the ruling does not serve as having precedence in other regions it created considerable concern within the medical community who started to fear that doctors conducting religiously driven circumcision operations could also open themselves up to litigation in the courts.

Not surprisingly this subject has opened deep wounds and unpleasant memories between Germany and its Jewish community. Since the Nazi driven extermination of European Jews in the second World War successive German governments have worked hard to rebuild the Jewish community in Germany. Today it is estimated to comprise approximately 120,000 people.

This week the European Conference of Rabbis held an emergency session in which they warned of the possible consequences of the Court ruling in Cologne. In the conferences closing speech it was declared that the Court’s decision that circumcisions are illegal would mean that “there would be no future for the a major portion of the Jewish communities in Germany”.   Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the body’s president also said in the meeting that the court decision the “worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust.”

Likewise this Islamic community in Germany has similar concerns. Much of the highly successful german industrial machine has been built on labour from its huge Turkish population. They are the major contingent making up Germany’s over 4 million Muslims.

Even the new Archbishop of the Catholic church in Germany,  Gerhard Ludwig Müller, has strongly spoken out in favour of keeping circumcision legal. “Making ritual circumcisions of boys illegal brings into question the religious and cultural identity of the Jews” and he goes on to point out the relevance of this decision in the light of recent german history (towards the Jews). He added that “Those who remain silent when the lives of the unborn are taken have no moral right to criminalize circumcision“.

This subject can therefore be described as hypersensitive and already all the major political parties in Germany (the Coalition Government, as well as the opposition SPD and Greens) have spoken out in favour of keeping ritual circumcision legal.

So it looks as if considerable resources and effort will be put into providing clarity around whether Jews and Muslims can continue to circumcise their boys using German doctors without them facing the risk of litigation. Hopefully this will happen quickly otherwise there is a serious possibility that these religious practices will go underground to be carried out by unqualified people in inappropriate or unsanitary conditions.

Please do not hesitate to add your comments below if you have strong views, opinions or questions in regard to this subject.

Chris Duggleby

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