Religious traditions, including circumcision, continue to be protected in Germany, despite a court ruling last week, according to the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle.
Speaking on Sunday in the wake of a decision by a court in Cologne, which held that circumcision amounted to bodily harm, Mr Westerwelle moved to offer reassurances after furious protests by Jewish and Muslim groups.
Last week, a state court in Cologne ruled that the child’s right to physical integrity trumps freedom of religion and parents’ rights. The ruling was not binding but legal experts said it appeared to clarify a grey area in the law and would guide doctors in the future.
The ruling was strongly criticised by the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, who urged Parliament to clarify the legal situation to protect religious freedom.
The European Jewish Congress (EJC) condemned the decision on Sunday and Muslim leaders also expressed concern.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that a legal debate “must not lead to doubts arising internationally about religious tolerance in Germany.”
“The ruling on circumcision has provoked annoyance internationally,” Westerwelle wrote on his official Twitter account.
“We have to be clear: religious traditions are protected in Germany,” he added.
Westerwelle was quoted in the Bild’s online edition Thursday saying that Germany “is an open and tolerant country where religious freedom is well established and where religious traditions like circumcision as an expression of religious diversity are protected.”
Volker Beck, a senior lawmaker with the opposition Greens, left open whether a “correction” of the Cologne ruling should be sought through the court system or through new legislation, but he said the result should be clarity that circumcision on religious grounds is justified so long as hygienic and medical standards are kept to.
The case in Cologne involved a doctor accused of carrying out a circumcision on a 4-year-old, approved by his Muslim parents, that led to medical complications.
The ruling has led to hospitals in Germany cancelling planned circumcisions causing great distress in the Jewish community.
Berlin’s Jewish Hospital suspended circumcisions in the wake of the ruling. The European Jewish Press, quoting AFP, said that Jewish Hospital Dr. Kristof Graf stated, “We are suspending circumcisions until the legal position is clear."
“We regularly performed circumcisions before this ruling, but we don't have the legal freedom to do so any more.”
Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress said this assault on established religious practices was intolerable.
“We would hope that in Germany of all places where there is a high level of sensitivity to such freedoms, Jewish life would be allowed to flourish without restriction,” Kantor said. “We hope and call on the German government to exercise its authority and take a clear stand against this ruling and in line with the German constitution which guarantees religious freedom.”
“We need to remind people that our practices, completely in line with modern science and safety precautions, are thousands of years old and above all, are protected by the European Convention of Human Rights on the basis of freedom of religion.”
The EJC has added its support to the position of the Zentralrat, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, on this issue.
“After recent attempts to ban shechitah (the kosher killing of animals) in various parts of Europe, another Jewish religious practice is being targeted,” Kantor said. “If any of these attempts succeed they could quickly spread to other parts of Europe and severely impact on Jewish life on our continent.”