Germany’s Jewish and Muslim communities responded with outrage today to a highly controversial court ruling which stipulated that the circumcision of young boys on religious grounds caused bodily harm and infringed a child’s right to physical integrity.
The divisive verdict, delivered by an appeals court in Cologne, involved the case of a Muslim boy who became seriously ill after undergoing the procedure, and ruled that the individual rights of the child took legal precedence over the religious rights of its parents.
The judges concluded that “circumcision contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on in life about his religious beliefs” and “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents”.
Male circumcision is not illegal in Germany, but until the court ruling it had inhabited a legal ‘grey area’ which had allowed doctors to carry out the operation. Some medical organisations advise doctors to draw up a contract with their patients before performing the operation to guard against possible legal action.
Circumcision is almost universally practised as both a custom and standard religious observance by Germany's four million Muslims and 200,000 Jews. Critics said the court’s ruling could now make it more difficult to carry out routine religious circumcision.
Dieter Graumann, the President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews denounced the ruling today as “outrageous and insensitive”. He described it as an “unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination” and demanded that parliament intervene to “protect religious freedom”. Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims said the ruling was both “inadmissible” and “outrageous.”
The Cologne ruling centred on the case of a four-year-old Muslim boy, who was circumcised in one of the city’s clinics in November 2010 on the wishes of his parents.
Two days after the operation, the child’s mother took the boy to the accident and emergency unit at Cologne University hospital because he was suffering from severe bleeding. State prosecutors subsequently charged the doctor who had performed the operation.
A lower court found that the doctor had carried out the operation properly and ruled that the child’s circumcision was in his interests as it signified his membership of the Muslim community. However the prosecution appealed to a higher Cologne court which overruled the lower court’s verdict and concluded that circumcision caused bodily harm and was therefore not justified. It was not clear today whether a higher court could overturn the Cologne court's decision.
The Cologne court also took issue with the idea that circumcision was more hygienic and helped to prevent cancer in men. It concluded: “In central Europe there is no necessity to carry out circumcision as a form of preventive medicine.”
The ruling seems certain to provoke further controversy. Circumcision has been a hotly debated topic among German doctors and lawyers for several years. Muslim groups have complained about being discriminated against by critics of circumcision.
In 2006 a Turkish pensioner from Düsseldorf was fined by a court for carrying out circumcisions within the city’s Turkish community. The court overruled his objection that he was regarded as a bone fide practitioner of circumcision in Turkey.Reuse content