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German Lawmakers Move To Quell Uproar Over Circumcision

A rabbi holds up a pillow used during ritual circumcision at a synagogue in Berlin.
Markus Schreiber
A rabbi holds up a pillow used during ritual circumcision at a synagogue in Berlin.

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.