John MacDougall / AFP - Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, prepares Wednesday in Berlin to cast her ballot with other MPs after a debate in the German parliament's lower house over a law governing circumcision.
By Donald Snyder, NBC News special correspondent
The German parliament voted Wednesday to keep male circumcision legal, ending an international controversy that started when a Cologne court ruled the practice constitutes “bodily harm.”
The new law, proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, permits traditional Jewish circumcision, in which Jews trained in circumcision (mohels) circumcise male babies on the eighth day after birth, in accordance with the Torah.
The government bill won by a hefty margin: 434 in favor and 100 against. Forty-six abstained. At a rally near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, roughly 20 demonstrators protested the new law.
Opponents of the legislation submitted an alternative that would have permitted circumcision only after a male turns 14 years old and consents to the procedure. This measure was defeated 462 to 91.
Debate divides country
This debate over circumcision began in May after the Cologne court ruled that the botched circumcision of a 4-year-old Muslim boy violated the child’s rights because it constituted “illegal bodily harm,” even with parental consent. Muslims circumcise boys at a later age than Jews, and usually a doctor performs the circumcision. There’s no Muslim equivalent to the Jewish mohel.
Though strictly local in its jurisdiction, the Cologne ruling set off a furor over the future legal status of circumcision nationwide. Many doctors and hospitals stopped performing the procedure on Muslims for fear of prosecution. Jewish mohels, who are often rabbis, continued to perform circumcisions, risking prosecution. Charges were brought against a 64-year-old rabbi for performing circumcisions in Hof, a small town near the Czech border.
Bundestag member Kerstin Griese, 46, of the Social Democratic Party, who is an expert on religious issues, hailed the legislation. In an email to NBC News, she said Jewish and Muslim children have the right to grow up in their parents’ religion and should feel at home in Germany.
“Germany should not be the only country in the world that punishes the performing of this religious ritual,” she wrote.
Philip Missfelder, 33, a Bundestag member from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, said the legislation protects the child while ensuring freedom of religious practice.
“For me it is important that Jewish life in Germany can continue without hindrance,” he said.
A leader in the fight against the government law was Marlene Rupprecht, 64, a Social Democrat. When asked why she opposes the government-proposed legislation, she said she didn’t want Germany to go down in history as a country that legalizes injury to children just because of what the Torah or Bible says.
“Ritual circumcision is an irreparable and medically unnecessary procedure,” Rupprecht said.
Differing schools of thought
German society is highly secular. Religion is generally viewed as a relic from the past. This is especially true in what was formerly Communist East Germany, where atheism was the official doctrine for 44 years.
“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, a foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “And Germans throw overboard anything that has to do with tradition.”
According to Tempel, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism but showed a total misunderstanding of how important circumcision is to both religions.
TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July 2012 survey that 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.
Deirdre Berger, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, a Jewish advocacy organization, said that the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that has been accumulating over the past decade.
This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma, a view held by the German Association of Pediatricians, which has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions.
By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.
While applauding Wednesday’s vote to legalize circumcision, Berger does not believe this ends the controversy. The law is likely to be appealed to Germany’s Supreme Court, she said, and could open the door to more restrictive legislation in other European countries that are having similar anti-circumcision debates.
Donald Snyder, an NBC News producer for more than 25 years, is a special correspondent for NBCNews.com.
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