The Irish Times – Saturday, July 21, 2012
WORLD VIEW: The death of a child after a circumcision has sparked a controversy about religious freedom
IT IS NOT often you see a rabbi in the Bundestag or the chancellor Angela Merkel warning her backbenchers not to make Germany a “laughing stock” of itself.
But that was the scene in the German parliament on Thursday.
Members of parliament had been recalled from their holidays to debate and vote on emergency assistance for Spanish banks. At the last minute, though, another pressing matter found its way on to the agenda.
A majority of MPs backed a resolution that “the Bundestag views the circumcision of male children, socially accepted worldwide, as not comparable to damaging and unconscionable infringement of a child’s right to physical integrity such as female genital mutilation, which the Bundestag condemns”.
For the rabbi and others watching from the public gallery, the resolution threw up dozens of questions, chief among which was: how did we get here – and in Germany of all places?
Germany is home to about four million Muslims and 120,000 Jews. Official figures show 3,000 circumcisions are performed annually among registered doctors, although the real figure is believed to be almost twice that.
Since May 7th, however, religious circumcisions in the Cologne municipal area have been in legal limbo following a ruling by a regional court in the case of a four-year-old Muslim boy who died from complications following a circumcision.
That circumcision took place on November 4th last in the practice of a 62-year-old Cologne doctor who specialises in the procedure. As in thousands of previous cases, this one went off without any complications, he said later.
Two days later, the boy’s mother was asked to bring him back to the practice for a check- up. Two hours before the appointment, however, neighbours heard the woman screaming in Arabic: “My son is bleeding.” The boy was rushed to hospital where the mother, reportedly from Iraq and with little German, was unable to explain the details of the circumcision two days previously.
Medical records show the doctors assumed the boy had undergone a botched home circumcision “with a scissors, without anaesthetic”, at which point the wheels of Germany’s legal system began to turn.
Police investigated and a state prosecutor eventually charged the responsible doctor with “injuring another person with a dangerous instrument” – a scalpel.
The prosecutor lost the case and the doctor was acquitted in the first two instances – a later external appraisal found the circumcision “faultless” and the level of after-bleeding normal.
In the third instance, though, Cologne regional court ruled that a child’s constitutional right to physical integrity had precedence over the right to freedom of religious expression. Even when parents consented, a circumcision could, the court ruled, be considered a criminal act of bodily injury.
Although the ruling is applicable to greater Cologne only, the shock waves spread across the country and around the world, while doctors specialising in circumcisions, including at Berlin’s 250-year-old Jewish hospital, have suspended the practice until the legal situation is clarified.
The ruling has become a matter of urgency for Germany’s Jewish community, given their practice of circumcising boys eight days after birth.
That was reflected in a statement by European rabbis meeting in Berlin last week that the ruling was an attack on their religious identity that “calls into question the future existence of Jewish life in Germany”. Hours later, the federal government promised legislation by the autumn to allow circumcisions to be performed under correct medical procedures.
Thursday’s Bundestag vote was a symbolic stop-gap measure until a permanent resolution is reached; but rather than calm things down it provoked a divisive reaction that indicates a legal and moral minefield ahead.
Jewish and Muslim groups welcomed the gesture. The German Judges Association backed the Bundestag vote and urged a swift action to permit circumcision. The Green parliamentary party declined to support the resolution en bloc.
The Cologne ruling has been widely criticised in the German media and hotly debated in legal circles. In Berlin’s political scene, the widespread view is that German history does not allow it the luxury of taking an avant garde position on matters of religious belief, particularly involving an issue so central to the Jewish faith.
The German population appears split. A poll by YouGov for the DPA news agency found 45 per cent of Germans favour a legal ban on circumcision of boys, while 42 per cent opposed a ban and 13 per cent were undecided.
Now the discussion has moved on to how a secular majority should respond to practices it finds alien.
One side argues that it is the sign of a mature and enlightened society to view circumcision without consent as a practice at odds with German secular values. Some have gone so far as to describe it as a religious anachronism comparable to exorcism.
The other side argues that a society’s maturity can be measured by the defence of the rights and beliefs of minority (religious) beliefs and practices one does not necessarily share.
Legal observers say it is unlikely, although not impossible, that other regional courts will follow the Cologne ruling. Even if legislation comes in the autumn, the issue may well land before the constitutional court for a definitive ruling.