In Germany, Ruling Over Circumcision Sows Anxiety and Confusion
BERLIN — When the time came to have their son circumcised at age 4, Muhsin Sapci and his wife, Gonca, both first generation immigrants from Turkey, assumed they would simply take the boy to the nearby Jewish Hospital, used by many Muslim families who also prefer to have the procedure done by a surgeon.
But since a German court’s ruling that equated circumcision with bodily harm — and a criminal act — many hospitals across the nation have stopped performing the procedure. The Sapcis are determined to have their son, Asil, who turns 4 this month, circumcised, but they do not know where to go.
“Right now everything is controlled, most people go to a doctor and the child is covered by insurance,” Mr. Sapci said. “If they try to outlaw it, it will still be done, but differently, and that could have consequences.”
Their quandary is indicative of the confusion that has been sown by the ruling on June 26 by a court in Cologne that, while not enforceable outside that region, has sent ripples of anger and anxiety throughout the country and beyond. It has raised vexing questions about the boundaries of religious practice and freedom in an increasingly secular Germany.
“The often very aggressive prejudice against religion as backward, irrational and opposed to science is increasingly defining popular opinion,” said Michael Bongardt, a professor of ethics from Berlin’s Free University who added that the ruling reflected a profound lack of understanding in modern Germany for religious belief.
Jewish and Muslim organizations convened this week in Berlin and Brussels to protest the ruling vigorously, and they said they had been inundated with calls from confused parents. The German Medical Association condemned the ruling for potentially putting children at risk by taking the procedure out of the hands of doctors, but it also warned surgeons not to perform circumcisions for religious reasons until legal clarity was established.
On Friday, as the outcry intensified, the issue reached the highest levels of the German government. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said that discussions were under way between the chancellor’s aides and the justice and other ministries to find a legal solution that would protect the right to perform ritual circumcisions.
“It is urgently necessary that we establish legal certainty,” said the spokesman, Steffen Seibert. “It is clear this cannot be put on the back burner. Freedom to practice religion is a cherished legal principle.”
Germany’s Justice Ministry is “carefully examining” the ruling and will decide what, if any, consequences are necessary, including the possibility of proposing legislation, said Mareke Aden, a ministry spokeswoman. But she warned that because the ruling involves opposing constitutional rights, a review would take time.
The condemnation has also come from abroad, including from the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Germany’s ambassador to Israel was called before a parliamentary committee to explain the ruling. Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, said Friday that he had been showered with questions and criticism surrounding the ruling.
“They are all greatly concerned about the ramifications of the ruling, but mostly for Jewish and Muslim life in Germany,” Mr. Westerwelle said. There are 100,000 Jews and four million Muslims living here.
Early on, Mr. Westerwelle tried to calm the storm, by insisting that “Germany is an open, tolerant country, where religious freedom is firmly anchored and where religious traditions, such as circumcision, are protected as an expression of religious pluralism.”
The reality has been less clear-cut. Bans on circumcision have existed throughout history, from ancient Roman and Greek times to the Soviet era last century. And while the Cologne court did not ban the practice and acquitted the doctor who performed a procedure that resulted in complications, it found that “the right of parents to raise their children in a religion does not override the right of a child to bodily integrity.”
That such a ruling would come from a court in modern, post-World War II Germany has caused many to wonder whether the judges were fully aware of the implications and would have ruled differently had the case involved a Jewish boy, instead of a young Muslim. The boy in question was 4 years old.
“I can’t imagine Berlin prosecutors ordering the police to enter a synagogue and arrest a Jew with a beard and yarmulke for carrying out a circumcision,” said Josh Spinner, an American rabbi who moved to Berlin 12 years ago and who now runs the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “Those are pictures that I don’t believe anyone here is ready for.”
After their meeting in Brussels this week, Muslim and Jewish leaders issued a joint statement calling on the German government to take action to defend the practice. “Circumcision is an ancient ritual that is fundamental to our individual faiths, and we protest in the strongest possible terms this court ruling,” it said.
Since the ruling, at least three ritual circumcisions have been performed in Berlin’s Jewish community, Mr. Spinner said. One was on the infant son of a 33-year-old man who moved to Germany from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, during an immigration wave of mostly Eastern European Jews who have helped the Jewish community here swell to more than 100,000.
“The circumcision was planned because it was eight days after his birth, the time was right,” said the boy’s father, who did not want to give his name for fear that he could face legal charges. “We did it because we had to do it.”
For the Sapcis, circumcising Asil is seen as both a practical step and a rite of passage. Mr. Sapci said he, too, was circumcised at age 4 in Turkey in a traditional celebration that is viewed among Turks as a boy’s first step toward becoming a man.
“To call circumcision into question is idiotic,” Ms. Sapci said. “Just as washing your face, your hands and behind your ears is a ritual in Islam, so is circumcision.”