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In Berlin, a rite that unites

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BERLIN -- As the circumcision debate heats up around the world, Germany's controversial past makes room for an unlikely alliance in the present.

BERLIN — The rhythmic pounding of drums and a zurna pipe sound out over the rush-hour racket of a four-lane thoroughfare in Berlin's Schöneberg district. A colorfully dressed group of people moves to the beat in a large circle spanning the sidewalk, hands joined. Though the celebration is mistaken by many passersby for a wedding, it is actually part of a Turkish circumcision ritual.

The demonstrative ceremony is an integral part of life in Germany's Muslim communities, which make up roughly five percent of the population. But a decision announced by a Cologne court last June ruled the practice of circumcision illegal, asserting that it amounts to criminal assault. Following outcry from Jews and Muslims worldwide, community representatives in Berlin came together in protest over the issue last week.

The German Turkish community organization’s chairman Kenan Kolat received a kippah from his Jewish peers when he addressed the crowd of some 300 mostly-Jewish demonstrators on the subjects of religious rites and anti-Semitism among Muslims. But other community representatives say the question goes far beyond that of faith.

“A ban on circumcision in Germany wouldn't stop the practice, it would simply make it more dangerous," Deputy Federal Chairwoman for the German Turkish Community Organization Ayşe Demir told Smart Planet.

"What you'll see is a sort of ‘circumcision tourism' develop in poorer countries, outside of Germany, where hygiene standards are even less likely to hold up.”

The subject is frought with controversy, even among medical professionals. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had held its 1999 stance that the risks of circumcision outweighed the benefits until reversing the conclusion earlier this month, noting that, “the decision to circumcise is one best made by parents in consultation with their pediatrician, taking into account what is in the best interests of the child, including medical, religious, cultural, and ethnic traditions and personal beliefs.”

Widely-acknowledged benefits of circumcision include reduced risk of HIV, while the Economist reported that an AAP-appointed task force also found a decrease in risk of various illnesses and infections, including HPV, among circumcised men. The task force also reported no evidence that circumcision diminished sexual function or pleasure, according to the magazine.

But opponents of religious circumcision say the practice puts the religious rights of parents before the human rights of children on outdated grounds. German Green Party representative Memet Kilic told the country’s taznewspaper in July that his stance has changed since the court decision first fell.

“A few weeks ago, I would have said no [to the government’s right to institute a ban]. But the Cologne decision provoked some necessary debate: that which appears in holy texts must also hold to modern-day interpretations of decency and medical progress,” said Kilic.

“The state alone will never succeed in changing the religious rites and customs of its citizens — but it can question them and enter into a dialogue with religious community leaders.”

Kilic told the paper he believes all non-medical circumcisions should be postponed until 14 years of age, at which point a youth could decide for or against the practice himself.

But in a country with an infamously precarious relationship to both its Jewish and Muslim minority populations, top politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, were quick to condemn the attempts to curtail the religious custom:

"I don't want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews are unable to practice their rites — we would be a joke,” she told Financial Times Deutschland, following accusations from ban opponents that Germany lacks respect for its minority faiths.

Representative Kilic reiterated his belief that the debate is complex, yet necessary:

“It’s clear that this kind of conversation will produce tones that may seem anti-Semetic or anti-Islamic. We have a responsibility to move sensitively, and not only because of the Holocaust. But Germany also signed the Children’s Rights Convention: the Cologne decision was simply logical for a secular society — and is better than it has been painted, because it considers various points.”

Justice Minister Thomas Heilmann announced September 5 that circumcisions would not be prosecutable as long as parents could "prove religious motivation and necessity", for instance with the official consent of their religious community, according to Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper.

PHOTO: Flickr/queer.kopf/fotos@queer-kopf.de

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure