When human rights and religious traditions clash

Hans Rollmann
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German court decides that circumcision is illegal

Two weeks ago, a state court in Cologne, Germany, decided that a fundamental religious initiation rite among Muslims and Jews is illegal. According to a news release out of the Cologne courts, a lower municipal court had in September 2011 exonerated a physician who had circumcised a four-year-old Muslim boy in 2010 after his parents had given their permission.

The case

Accused by public prosecutors of having caused bodily harm to the boy, the doctor was cleared by the lower court. The judge argued that the circumcision had been performed for the well-being of the child.

“Circumcision as a traditional practice,” the lower court ruled, “serves to document the cultural and religious affiliation and counters a stigmatizing of the child.”

The court also noted that circumcision is considered to be of great hygienic value in America and the Anglo-Saxon world.

Responding to an appeal by the public prosecutor, the Cologne state court (Landgericht) sided with the lower court in clearing the doctor, although on different grounds, but declared that circumcision causes bodily harm within the definition of the law.

The appeals court rejected the notion that the act, even when the parents had expressly permitted it, was for the well-being of the child. In the view of the court, the fundamental right of the child to life and physical integrity trumps the basic rights of parents. The court did not find religious freedom and the right of parents to rear their children “unduly restricted, if they are asked to wait until the child might later himself decide to be circumcised.”

Yet the previous acquittal of the doctor was upheld on grounds that the doctor had been “unavoidably in error” since he had believed that he acted legally.

“This error,” the higher court found, “was for him unavoidable since the legal situation has been decided differently in legal practice and literature.”


Muslim and Jewish reactions

Reactions to the court decision were swift in the German media, notably from two religious groups particularly affected.

The Central Council of Muslims in Germany called the ruling “a blatant and impermissible intrusion into the right of self-determination of religious communities and into the rights of parents.”

Aiman Mazyek, the chair of the council, stated that “religious freedom is accorded very great value in our constitution and should not become a pawn of a one-dimensional adjudication, which in addition will harden even further the existing prejudices and clichés that surround the topic.”

Muslim organizations also de­manded that the German federal parliament safeguard and decree legal recognition of male circumcision.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany considers the judgment “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination.”

According to Dr. Dieter Graumann, the council’s president, “This court decision is an outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision of newborn boys is an inherent part of the Jewish religion and has been practised worldwide for centuries. This religious right is respected in every country in the world.”

The Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the United States defended circumcision as “a core religious rite of Judaism” and considers its criminalization “an intolerable burden on the free exercise by Jews and also by Muslims who practice male circumcision as part of their religious faith.”

Abraham H. Foxman, director of ADL, noted German efforts to reconcile with Jews and to rebuild Jewish life in the country, adding that while the court’s ruling had no anti-Semitic intent, its effect is to say, “Jews are not welcome.”


Wider discussion

Christian organizations have joined the campaign of Jews and Muslims to recognize and maintain the ancient ritual.

The Conference of Roman Cath­olic Bishops in Germany judged the court’s decision as “very odd,” endangering the rights of parents.

Philosophers, theologians, politicians and scholars have all weighed in for or against the decision so that the topic has engaged wider public discussion.

Necla Kelek, an articulate Turkish-born feminist writer and social scientist, is among the critical voices supportive of the court’s ruling.

In an article in the German newspaper Die Welt, she judges circumcision to be a “reprehensible tradition” that traumatizes the child.

Kelek disputes its medical value.

Referring to possible mental harm among Muslim boys — who are traditionally circumcised between age seven to 10 rather than a few days after birth, as among Jews — she quotes the psychiatrist Janet Menage, who considers the rite to be “societally sanctioned abuse.”

Among the German public, the court’s judgment has received considerable favourable support. A poll conducted for the German magazine Focus Online shows that 56 per cent of Germans support the judgment of the appellate court, while only 35 per cent consider it wrong, with 10 per cent of those interviewed offering no opinion.


Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious

studies at Memorial University

and can be reached by email at hrollman@mun.ca

Organizations: ADL, Central Council of Muslims, Jewish Anti-Defamation League

Geographic location: Germany, Cologne, United States

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Recent comments

  • Charles Kennedy
    July 16, 2012 - 20:54

    Hitchens on Circumcision It just so happens that I came across a passage in Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great today that talks about circumcision, and it is worth quoting at length. While he speaks more broadly of the history of circumcision, this passage seemed to be appropriate given our earlier discussion of the topic. In more recent times, some pseudosecular arguments have been adduced for male circumcision. It has been argued that the process is more hygienic for the male and thus more healthy for females in helping them avoid, for example, cervical cancer. Medicine has exploded these claims or else revealed them as problems which can just as easily be solved by a “loosening” of the foreskin. Full excision, originally ordered by god as the blood price for the promised future massacre of the Canaanites, is now exposed for what it is — a mutilation of a powerless infant with the aim of ruining its future sex life. The connection between religious barbarism and sexual repression could not be plainer than when it is “marked in the flesh.” Who can count the number of lives that have been made miserable in this way, especially since Christian doctors began to adopt ancient Jewish folklore in their hospitals? And who can bear to read the medical textbooks and histories which calmly record the number of boy babies who died from infection after their eighth day, or who suffered gross and unbearable dysfunction and disfigurement? The record of syphilitic and other infection, from rotting rabbinical teeth or other rabbinical indiscretions, or of clumsy slitting of the urethra and sometimes a vein, is simply dreadful. And it is permitted in New York in 2006! If religion and its arrogance were not involved, no healthy society would permit this primitive amputation, or allow any surgery to be practiced on the genitalia without the full and informed consent of the person concerned. Hitchens also talks about, and quotes, Maimonides on circumcision, who saw it as a means of lessening sexual pleasure, and therefore regulating morality. Maimonides also has a good argument for why it is performed on babies (basically because they can’t protest)

  • karimul
    July 16, 2012 - 13:12


  • Ronald Goldman, Ph.D.
    July 15, 2012 - 14:10

    Studies show that circumcision causes significant pain and trauma, behavioral and neurological changes in infants, potential parental stress from persistent crying (colic) of infants, disrupted bonding between parent and child, and risk of surgical complications. Other consequences of circumcision include loss of a natural, healthy, functioning body part, reduced sexual pleasure, potential psychological problems, and unknown negative effects that have not been studied. Some circumcised men resent that they are circumcised. Sexual anxieties, reduced emotional expression, low self-esteem, avoidance of intimacy, and depression are also reported. Some doctors refuse to perform circumcisions because of ethical reasons. Relying on the presumed authorities (e.g., American Academy of Pediatrics or doctors who echo AAP views) is not sufficient. For more information see http://www.circumcision.org.

  • Doug Smith
    July 14, 2012 - 17:20

    Mr. Rollmann, to merely report on the German legal system and circumcision and not condemn the barbaric practice just will not do. In Canada, mutilation of the genital area for females is strictly and specifically forbidden and is spelled out in detail. Our justice system provides no such protection for boys. By any standard this is sexual discrimination perpetrated by Canada’s legal system. Why don’t you demand equal treatment for boys? How our justice system will allow a horrendous physical assault upon a defenceless infant or young boy is more than a tragedy, it is a crime against humanity. All decent people need to speak out against this hellish practice and those that commit such acts. Mr. Rollmann you need to speak out, innocent children need all the support they can get. Doug Smith, Grand Falls-Windsor