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German Lawmakers Move To Quell Uproar Over Circumcision

Oct 19, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 12:38 pm

Circumcisions have been virtually suspended in Germany for the past four months. The practice was effectively banned after a regional court in Cologne ruled that circumcision amounts to assault.

That controversial ruling this summer alienated the country's 120,000 registered Jews and 4 million Muslims, who saw it as a violation of religious freedom. It also fueled accusations of intolerance in a country still haunted by its Nazi past.

So now, embarrassed by the outcry, the German government is pushing through a bill that would make circumcision legal.

Aiman Mazyek, president of the German Muslim council, says there are over 1.5 billion circumcised men worldwide, and nowhere is the procedure considered a crime.

"Circumcision has been a way of life throughout the world for thousands of years without there ever having to be any kind of legislative procedure. Only in Germany, unfortunately," says Mazyek, "does this become an issue."

The Muslim leader's indignation was echoed by Dieter Graumann, president of the German Central Council of Jews: "We are not a group of sadists and masochists. Every time we talk about the well-being of children, we should not forget that part of that well-being includes being able to live in a tolerant, liberal and respectful society."

Many German Jews began to ask out loud if they still have a future in Germany. And, in an unprecedented move, Jewish and Muslim leaders joined forces and held a vigil last month. They chose a symbolic place, Bebelplatz — the same square where the Nazis had burned more than 20,000 books they considered un-German.

The circumcision bill currently making its way through the legislative process requires adequately trained practitioners, use of an effective painkiller, and that parents be informed of the potential consequences. The bill still needs parliament's approval, but the Jewish and Muslim communities felt reassured.

But the debate has not been quelled. Germany's Association of Pediatricians is the most vocal opponent of circumcision.

Dr. Ulrich Fegeler, the group's spokesman, acknowledges the weight of his country's past, but he also stresses the importance of the U.N. charter of children's rights.

"We murdered millions of Jewish people, and it is a burden that we have to reflect, to have respect to that," says Fegeler. "But otherwise, there is a right of children to have a nonharmed body."

But Dr. Richard Stern — a cardiologist and head of the ethics committee at Berlin's Jewish Hospital — cites the medical benefits of circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, he notes, both recommend the procedure as a way to reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Before the court ruling, circumcision was a non-issue in Germany. Now, opinion polls show 56 percent are opposed to the practice.

Ironically, every December during the holiday season, in churches both Catholic and Protestant, Germans have been praising the practice in song in Bach's Christmas Oratorio and its cantata "For the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ," in which the tenor sings, "And when eight days were over, the child was to be circumcised, and he was given the name Jesus."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In Germany, a fierce debate is underway about an unlikely topic: circumcision. The practice was effectively banned in June after a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to assault. That ruling unified Jewish and Muslim groups who opposed it and fueled accusations of intolerance in a country that is haunted by its Nazi past.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that in response, the German government has quickly drafted a bill that would legalize circumcision.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The June ruling by a court in Cologne alienated Germany's 120,000 registered Jews and four million Muslims, who saw it as a violation of religious freedom. And it led to a virtual suspension of circumcisions for four months throughout Germany, as doctors and hospitals feared prosecution.

Aiman Mazyek, president of the German Muslim Council, says there are over 1.5 billion circumcised men worldwide, and nowhere is the procedure considered a crime.

AIMAN MAZYEK: (Through translation) Circumcision has been a way of life throughout the world for thousands of years without there ever having to be any kind of legislative procedure. Only in Germany, unfortunately, does this become an issue.

POGGIOLI: The Muslim leader's indignation was echoed by Dieter Grauman, president of the German Central Council of Jews.

DIETER GRAUMAN: (Through translation) We are not a group of sadists and masochists. Every time we talk about the wellbeing of children, we should not forget that part of that wellbeing includes being able to live in a tolerant, liberal and respectful society.

POGGIOLI: Many German Jews began to ask out loud if they still have a future in Germany. And in an unprecedented move, Jewish and Muslim leaders joined forces and held a vigil last month. They chose a symbolic place, Bebelplatz, the same square where the Nazis had burned more than 20,000 books they considered un-German.

Embarrassed by the outcry, the government rushed through a circumcision bill that requires adequately-trained practitioners, use of an effective painkiller and that parents be informed of the potential consequences. The bill still needs parliament's approval, but the Jewish and Muslim communities felt reassured.

This shop in Berlin's multi-cultural Kreuzberg neighborhood sells the elaborate clothing young Turkish Muslim boys traditionally wear on the day of their circumcision celebration, when they're called Prince of the Day. Shop owner Erkan Cavan says that contrary to Judaism, in which the ritual is performed once the boy is eight days old, Muslim boys can be circumcised at any age.

ERKAN CAVAN: By us, by Muslims, by us this is a big celebration, and then we make it very big, with 500, 600 peoples.

POGGIOLI: But the debate has not been quelled. The German Association of Pediatricians is the most vocal opponent of circumcision. Spokesman Dr. Ulrich Fegeler acknowledges the weight of his country's past, but he also stresses the importance of the U.N. charter of children's rights.

ULRICH FEGELER: We murdered millions of Jewish people, and it is a burden that we have to reflect to - to have respect to that. But otherwise there is a right of children to have an unharmed body.

POGGIOLI: But Dr Richard Stern, a cardiologist and head of the ethics committee at Berlin's Jewish Hospital, cites the medical benefits of circumcision. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, he stresses, recommend the procedure as a way to reduce the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

And observant Jews and Muslims, Dr. Stern adds, wonder why they have to give up a ritual thousands of years old.

RICHARD STERN: And you know what? I don't know some rational reasons for that. I don't have to explain why I am doing, I do it because it's my belief and my tradition.

POGGIOLI: Before the court ruling, circumcision was a non-issue in Germany. Now, opinion polls show 56 percent are opposed to the practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POGGIOLI: Ironically, every December during the holiday season, in churches both Catholic and Protestant, Germans have been praising the practice in song in Bach's Christmas Oratorio and its cantata "For the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: The tenor sings: and when eight days were over, the child was to be circumcised and he was given the name Jesus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.