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Religious freedom

July 11, 2012

European Orthodox rabbis have protested a German court's ban on circumcision for religious reasons. The Jewish leaders say it's yet another example of the marginalization of minorities.

Pinchas Goldschmidt
Image: dapd

Europe's Orthodox rabbis have warned of the consequences of a verdict by a regional court in Cologne that rules that the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons is illegal.

It's a "highly problematic" ruling for Jewish communities in Germany, Pinchas Goldschmidt , the president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), told DW. He said he hoped the government in Berlin would quickly arrange for legal clarification.

Goldschmidt said he is just as shocked by opinion polls that show a majority of Germans welcome the Cologne court's ruling. This is about the "basics of a liberal democracy, about the absolute recognition of the religious freedom of minorities," he said.

The CER has about 400 members. Some 30 Orthodox rabbis from more than 10 European nations are in Berlin for a two-day meeting on the Cologne verdict and its possible consequences.

The gathering was called by the Swiss-born Goldschmidt, the long-time chief rabbi of Moscow who attended a parliamentary session on the German verdict Monday in Israel's Knesset before heading to Berlin.

Goldschmidt pointed out circumcision has existed among Jews for 4,000 years: it is "the oldest Jewish tradition" and one of the most important commandments. Adult men who wish to convert to Judaism must also undergo the procedure, he said.

Hoping for a rapid solution

The Orthodox rabbis hope the German government will solve the problem by ordering constitutional clarification. "We want this solved as soon as possible," said Goldschmidt, pointing out that rebuilding Jewish communities in post-war Germany "is of essential importance for Germany's future."

Goldschmidt also pointed out a rising tendency toward intolerance of religious minorities in Europe. As example, he cited a recent Swiss ban on building new minarets on mosques, a French ban on women wearing Islamic veils in public and a debate in the Netherlands about kosher meat prepared by Jewish butchers.

Baby on a cushion surrounded by group of men and women
A Cologne court ruled that circumcision constitutes grievous bodily harmImage: AP

The regulations aim at downgrading and confining individual cultures and civilizations, Goldschmidt said, adding that the Cologne verdict conveys the message that the Jewish or Muslim civilizations are "not socially acceptable" in Europe. Should higher courts confirm the ruling, that would amount to "a threat for the present and the future of Jewish communities in Germany."

Jewish families in several German cities have already cancelled their sons' circumcisions, Goldschmidt said, but he urged them to ignore the ruling. "Jewish parents should just continue with the circumcision. We've done it for 4,000 years - just carry on!"

Goldschmidt also referred to comments made by Pope Benedict XVI during a visit to Germany last year, in which he said that historically, Europe rests on three pillars: the Torah from Jerusalem, Roman politics and Greek philosophy. Goldschmidt said it's also in Germany's interest to preserve these traditions.

In the interest of the child

In late June, the Cologne court ruled on the criminal liability of a doctor who had circumcised a four-year-old Muslim boy in an operation that led to medical complications. The judges ruled that religious circumcision is a lasting and irreparable invasion, a case of grievous bodily harm despite the parents' consent. Circumcision physically changes the child's body, and that is contrary to his own interest in "being able to decide his religious affiliation later in life."

The ruling caused an uproar in both the Jewish and Muslim communities in Germany, as well as among members of Christian churches. As political leaders look into the matter, several hospitals across Germany have already suspended circumcisions until the legal position is clear.

Author: Christoph Strack / db
Editor: Martin Kuebler