A widely criticized German court verdict on religious circumcision this week aims only to delay the act, not ban it, and is not directed against any faith, a jurist with a leading role in the legal debate said on Friday.
The operation does serious bodily harm and only males old enough to consent to it freely should undergo it, said Holm Putzke, law professor at Passau University in southern Germany.
Using arguments Putzke has published in recent years, a court in the western city of Cologne ruled on Tuesday that the circumcision there of a Muslim boy who suffered post-operative bleeding had violated a German law against causing bodily harm.
Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Germany denounced the ruling as a serious intrusion on religious freedom. Even Germany’s foreign minister spoke out, saying such faith traditions must be allowed in a tolerant modern society.
“I can understand that this verdict has irritated people around the world, but this irritation can be resolved if people look at the reasons for it,” Putzke told Reuters by telephone.
“Nobody wants to ban religious circumcision in Islam and Judaism, not at all,” he said. “It should just be decided by those who undergo it.”
Some German media initially reported the verdict applied only to Jews, which may have added to the emotion of some first reactions, he said. Suggesting opposition to circumcision was aimed against Jews was dishonest, he said.
Germany is home to about 4 million Muslims and 120,000 Jews.
Jews circumcise male infants eight days after birth to recall their covenant with God. The time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, region and country.
The Cologne court ruling said the four-year-old boy in the case was not old enough to consent to have part of his body removed permanently and his parents should have let him decide when he got older. It gave no minimum age for this.
LIVELY DEBATE AMONG DOCTORS
Putzke said an article he published five years ago in a German medical journal led to lively debates among doctors, especially those called on to perform circumcisions.
“It quickly became clear that a large majority of doctors in clinics objected to medically unnecessary circumcisions,” he said. “They said they went against the Hippocratic Oath.”
The doctor who treated the boy for post-operative bleeding reported the case to the police, leading them to bring charges against the person who performed the faulty circumcision.
The Cologne judge consulted academic articles in legal and medical journals before making his decision, Putzke said.
“This is not simply a verdict from some misguided court,” he added. “Somebody sat down and thought long and hard about the fundamental legal rights involved.”
The verdict, which is valid only in the Cologne area, could “send a signal,” he said, but it was not clear if other courts would follow this example. He did not know of any similar cases before other courts in Germany.
Putzke said he began studying the issue of circumcision and children’s rights after his law professor pointed out to him and other students that violence against children was widely condemned in all cases but these.
“Even the Muslim students were surprised by this,” he said.
He hoped religious communities would be open to debating the issue and not refuse to consider any change to their traditions.
Putzke expressed surprise that many people had written to him after the court verdict was announced to support his view.
“I’ve received thousands of emails in the past few days, from all over the world,” he said. “The most remarkable thing is that the emails from Israel were the most balanced and moderate.”
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor