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Circumcision ban ignites a religious battle in Germany
BERLIN — A German court decision to criminalize religious circumcisions has turned into an international spat, as Israeli leaders urge Germany to protect the ancient rite and local Jewish and Muslim groups vow to continue the practice.
"Banning circumcision is tantamount to saying no Jewish life is possible in Germany," said Mimi Levy Lipis, a mother, a Jewish resident of Berlin and a professor of cultural studies. "I don't think Germany can afford to take that position."
In May, the Cologne Regional Court ruled against a doctor who had performed the procedure on a Muslim boy, resulting in serious complications. Judges said the practice constitutes an irreversible physical change on a child who is not capable of giving his consent to the operation.
The procedure, which removes the foreskin of the penis, is widely practiced in Jewish and Muslim societies and in many parts of the United States. However, it is rare in Europe.
"Germans have no long history of circumcision. It's just something that's totally alien and foreign to them," said Mrs. Lipis.
"But the only reason that Cologne verdict came to pass in the first place was that it involved a Muslim boy, and sprung out of Islamophobia.
"If the case had revolved around a Jewish child, the verdict would have been different. It just so happens that the Muslim question was also a Jewish question."
Abraham Cooper from the Simon Wiesenthal Center complained about the court decision in a meeting Wednesday with German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.
"We are very concerned that Europe becomes a place where circumcision is made illegal or denigrated," he told reporters after his meeting. "That would be extraordinary dangerous and injurious for the Jewish community."
Israeli President Shimon Peres told German President Joachim Gauck in a letter last week that circumcision is "at the core of Jewish identity."
While the medical community in Germany aligned itself with the court ruling, German religious groups expressed resentment about what they think is a threat to their fiercely guarded tradition.
Some say that the Jewish community in particular has been able to appeal to Germany's sense of guilt about its Nazi past.
"Historically, attempts to stop the Jewish people from performing this core Jewish rite, dating back to our patriarch Abraham, were associated with ancient Greek and Roman rulers and modern day tyrants like Stalin and Hitler -- not democracies," Mr. Cooper said in a statement issued last week from the Wiesenthal Center's headquarters in Los Angeles.
Muslim organizations also have been quick to condemn the court decision and put pressure on the German government to protect the custom widely practiced in Islamic societies.
"If all religious communities and secular organizations act together, then the resistance will be too strong to go through with the decision," said Serdar Yazar, secretary general of the Berlin-based Turkish Union, which represents Turks, who make up more than half of the 4 million Muslim people in Germany.
The German National Ethics Council, a forum for ethical issues, said Germany's special relationship with the global Jewish community meant that the rite had to be protected.
However, the council recommended that boys receive comprehensive information on the procedure and give their consent to the operation.
German medical associations have backed the decision of the court.
The DAKJ, Germany's umbrella organization of pediatric associations, said circumcision has a "6 percent chance of complications, which should not be disregarded."
The association also cited the common occurrence of trauma in boys between the ages of 4 and 7 who have had circumcisions without anesthesia, a common practice in Muslim circumcision rites. Even infants might unconsciously carry trauma from their circumcision experience, the association added.
Last week, a doctor launched a criminal complaint against German Rabbi David Goldberg, a ritual circumciser in the Bavarian city of Hof. However, Mr. Goldberg and other religious leaders have vowed to continue performing the rituals.
Other doctors bemoaned the court decision, saying it left them in a difficult position.
"Now we can't be sure whether or not we will be punished [for the procedure]," said Martin Mueller, a physician in Berlin.
"We have had to cancel five circumcisions, most of them for Muslims. We had to talk to the parents about this, and it was not an easy discussion because the parents ahead already planned the celebrations. Now the parents are left feeling confused about the future of their religious practice.
"For some religions, especially Jews, this is a central part of their religion," he added. "I don't really see how this can be solved politically."
The German government has already announced its intention to draft a law this fall that will protect Jews and Muslims from prosecution over circumcisions.
"The Ministry of Justice is consulting with religious and medical experts among others, to ensure that the legal question be clarified on as many levels as possible," said ministry spokesman Anne Zimmermann.
"[But] it's not a simple issue. Even the religious dimension itself has other layers, such as the fact that Muslim and Jewish circumcisions are performed differently from one another and such facts also have to be taken into consideration."
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