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The Wall Street Journal
(USA financial-oriented daily broadsheet)
Friday 13 July 2012
Berlin to Protect Right
to Ritual Circumcision
by Vanessa Fuhrmans
BERLIN -- Germany's government pledged Friday to pass a law to protect the ritual circumcision of young boys, seeking to calm a fractious debate over the religious rights of the country's Jews and Muslims that has erupted since a German court ruled the practice amounted to illegal bodily harm.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief spokesman called such legislation "a matter of urgency" after a district court in Cologne ruled in late June that a child's "fundamental right to physical integrity" superseded his parents' rights to carry out a religious practice. Because a child could decide later whether to have the circumcision on his own, that religious freedom wouldn't be unreasonably impaired, the court ruled.
The ruling has since unleashed an outpouring of criticism from Jewish and Muslim groups at home and abroad. The backlash has landed with particular resonance in a country still sensitive to accusations of religious intolerance as a result of the atrocities Nazis committed against Jews during the Third Reich. At an emergency meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis in Berlin earlier this week, its president called the court decision the "worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust."
Were the ruling to set a precedent, "there would be no future for most of the Jewish community in Germany," said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the body's president.
On Friday, the government sought to quell the uproar and move to clarify the legal uncertainty that the court decision has triggered. "For everyone in the government, it's completely clear: We want Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany," said Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said. "Circumcisions carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment."
Germany is home to some 4,000,000 Muslims, many of them originally from Turkey, as well as approximately 120,000 Jews, part of a community that has steadfastly rebuilt itself here since its near-obliteration during World War II. While Germany has sought to help re-establish its budding Jewish community and address its concerns, it has struggled, like many European countries, to integrate its swelling Muslim population.
The June 26 ruling stems from the case of a four-year-old Muslim boy who had been circumcised by a doctor at the behest of his parents. After complications developed and the boy was taken to the hospital, local prosecutors became aware of the case and took legal action against the doctor.
The lower court's ruling isn't binding on other jurisdictions, nor do legal experts anticipate it to set much of a precedence given court's position in Germany's judicial hierarchy. Still, the ruling has created a lot of legal uncertainty, and already had a stifling effect.
The German Medical Association earlier this week said the decision poses a legal quagmire for doctors and advised them not to perform such operations because of the risks of being prosecuted. The court ruling "isn't about banning religious rights," he said. "It's about delaying a religious act to ensure that children's rights are also protected."
Its president, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, warned the court's decision also could threaten children's health. One hospital that already has stopped performing religious circumcisions is the 250-year-old Jewish Hospital of Berlin. Last year, it performed roughly 300 circumcisions, on Muslim and Jewish boys. Since the Cologne court's ruling, though, the hospital said it has had to cancel five planned procedures.
"There is now the danger that laypeople will carry out the procedure instead, and that that will lead to considerable complications from the often unhygienic conditions alone," Dr. Montgomery said.
Holm Putzke, a German law professor from the University of Passau whose writings have played an influential role in Germany's legal debate over ritual circumcision, however, called the government's plans for legislation a "hasty reaction" that risked running afoul of Germany's constitution. Protecting the bodily harm of a child as a religious act opened the door to sanctioning other, more controversial practices under the guise of religious freedom he said.
A version of this article appeared July 13, 2012, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Berlin to Protect Right To Ritual Circumcision.- 30 -