BERLIN — A German court's decision that ritual circumcision amounts to criminal bodily harm threatens religious freedom in Europe, a group of European Orthodox rabbis said Thursday.
The ruling, handed down last month by a Cologne court, has prompted widespread criticism from Jewish and Muslim groups alike, despite German government attempts to allay fears that it could lead to a national ban on circumcisions.
Despite the government's assurances, the president of the German Medical Association this week recommended that doctors cease performing circumcisions for religious reasons until the law can be clarified.
Following an emergency meeting in the German capital of some 40 rabbis from across Europe to discuss the issue, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, Pinchas Goldschmidt, called circumcision "the foundation" of the Jewish faith.
Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, said that while the rabbis recognized the ruling does not set a nationwide precedent, it has raised fears among the Jewish community that members could be prosecuted if they circumcise their sons.
Goldschmidt cited France's ban on face-covering Muslim veils and Switzerland's ban on the construction of new minarets for mosques in saying the Cologne decision was part of a wider trend aimed at limiting religious traditions in largely secular Europe.
"I don't think that today there is a quasi-ban of circumcision in Germany, but it is an attack on circumcision – a big attack on circumcision – and I am here because I think that this is not only a problem for Germany but a problem for Europe," Goldschmidt said.
"Germany is an integral part – one of the most important parts – of Europe, so we want to solve this problem here first."
In a joint statement from Brussels earlier this week, a group of rabbis, imams and others said that they consider the ruling against circumcision "an affront on our basic religious and human rights."
In its decision, the court said that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm even if parents consent to the procedure.
The ruling came in the case of the circumcision of a 4-year-old Muslim boy that led to medical complications, and both German Jewish and Muslim groups have spoken out against it.
Avichai Apel, the chief rabbi of Dortmund, said he was in regular contact with Germany's bishops and imams on the issue.
"Circumcision is for us a duty, and the basis for a Jewish child to be a part of the Jewish people," he said. "Religious freedom is being curtailed, and that is something we cannot accept here in Germany."
Following the decision, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was quick to offer assurances that it would not mean an end to the practice, saying "the free exercise of religion is protected in Germany – that includes religious traditions."
The German ambassador to Israel told lawmakers in Jerusalem on Monday that the government was looking into whether laws needed to be changed.
"For us the deadline is not tomorrow, but yesterday," Goldschmidt said of possible changes to the law. In the meantime, however, "we say to the Jewish community ... keep performing the brit milah, and have no fear."
Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper in an interview printed Tuesday that for her "the best thing here would be a clear word from one of the high courts."
"Circumcision has never been questioned in the past," she said. "It is about fundamental questions and different values. The question is what part of religious practice is also part of the right to physical integrity."