VIENNA, July 27 (Reuters) - Austria's Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders united in defence of circumcision on Friday, condemning calls from two provincial leaders to limit the practice as an attack on religion and demanding that the government clarify its legality.
The row follows weeks of emotional debate and outrage in Germany where a regional court in Cologne banned the procedure on June 27 as physical abuse.
The Justice Ministry in Vienna has expressed surprise that a German verdict should be thought to have any relevance in Austria, and the health minister has played down the importance of what he called an overhyped debate imported from Germany.
Peter Schipka, general secretary of the Roman Catholic Austrian Bishops' Conference, told journalists on Friday: "We are concerned about all attempts to exploit the debate that has been triggered by the Cologne verdict to promote a hostile attitude in Austria towards Judaism, Islam or religion in general."
Protestant leader Michael Buenker noted there had been no similar attacks on other practices that were also physical interventions on children, such as ear piercing or vaccinations.
The right to religious freedom is protected in the Austrian constitution and can only be changed in law by a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Those seeking to ban circumcision argue a competing right to freedom from physical harm should take precedence, and that infants are unable to consent to being circumcised.
The four leaders called on the government to make a clear statement in defence of religious freedom and the lawfulness of male circumcision - an obligation in both Judaism and Islam.
Oskar Deutsch, leader of Austria's Jewish communities, said the law was clear that parents had a right to bring up their children in accordance with their faith.
"Nonetheless, the government is asked here very clearly to repeat this once more and to clarify that this will not be challenged in this country," he said.
A spokesman for Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann was not immediately available for comment.
Germany's lower house of parliament moved quickly to pass a motion protecting the religious circumcision of infant boys last week after the Cologne court verdict.
But an Austrian provincial chief nonetheless advised state-run hospitals this week to stop circumcisions, saying the legal position in Austria needed to be clarified, and the far-right governor of another province called for a federal ban.
According to the CIRCS organisation, which collects global published data on circumcision, 37 percent of all males are circumcised. Few circumcisions are carried out in hospitals.
The four religious leaders said on Friday it was impossible to live in Austria as a Muslim or a Jew without the ability to practice traditions that were fundamental to religious identity.
Austria's Jewish community has shrunk to just 9,000, or about 1 percent of the population, from about 200,000 before Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. A debate still simmers over whether the country was Hitler's first victim or a willing accomplice.
About half a million Muslims live in the country, many of them migrant workers from Turkey. (Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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