Germany’s Jews and Muslims will not be punished for breaking the law if they carry out circumcisions on young boys, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson said last week.
“For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany,” Merkel's spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, said on June 13, according to Reuters. “Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.”
Last week, Europe's main Orthodox rabbinical body held an emergency meeting in Berlin after a Cologne court ruled that the religious ritual could be considered a criminal act. Regardless, the rabbis urged Jews in Germany to uphold the commandment to circumcise newborn sons.
The court decision came in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision. The Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent. The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, welcomed Merkel's decision.
“This statement will come as a great comfort to Jewish communities not only in Germany, but also to communities right across Europe who felt deeply troubled by the court’s decision," he said. "I am grateful to Chancellor Merkel for making it clear that religious freedom will not be compromised in Germany.”
In a news conference held July 12 at the Amano Hotel in Berlin, Rabbi Goldschmidt said his organization was ready to back Jews in challenging the court decision, which Jewish groups see as symptomatic of a trend across Europe against some Jewish rituals.
The rabbinical conference also announced that it is joining with the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany to create an association of mohels, or ritual circumcisers, to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists.
Rabbi Goldschmidt, who is chief rabbi of Moscow, told JTA he didn't think “that 70 years after the Holocaust a German court would put a parent or a mohel in jail for performing a Jewish religious commandment.”
The Central Council of Jews in Germany condemned the court's decision and promised to work with German lawmakers to reverse the ruling. Muslim groups have also proposed bringing a test case to German courts.
The German Medical Association has advised doctors not to perform circumcisions until the legal questions are resolved, according to Reuters.
This week, Canadian and American Jewish groups also thanked Merkel for her comments.
Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said his organization was “encouraged” by the German leader’s remarks and her support of circumcision rights.
“The fact that this issue was raised in the first place reflects a small but alarming trend among some Western countries, in which religious freedoms are facing odious restrictions unworthy of a modern democracy,” he said in a statement. “Along with issues related to kashrut rights, the right of parents to observe brit milah is very much a litmus test for the future of Jewish communities – and indeed other religious minorities – in these countries.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also praised Merkel’s stance.
In a joint statement earlier this week, conference chair Richard Stone and executive vice chair Malcolm Hoenlein said they believed the Cologne court had “overstepped its bounds” on this issue.
“Circumcision of newborn boys is a fundamental component of the Jewish religion, as it is of Islam, and the choice of many other parents and has been performed from time immemorial. This right is respected around the world. In the past, a ban on circumcision was a means to attack or drive out Jewish communities.
“Striking down the ill-conceived Cologne court ruling should clarify any legal uncertainty and not allow such ideas to spread.”
With files from Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf