ROME – Reacting to a proposal in Iceland by members of five different political parties to criminalize the circumcision of boys, the head of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the EU (COMECE) has decried the measure as a “dangerous attack on freedom of religion.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a close adviser of Pope Francis as a member of the pontiff’s “C9” council of cardinals, issued the statement on Tuesday, expressing his solidarity with members of the Jewish and Muslim communities which practice circumcision as part of their religious traditions.
Circumcising girls has been illegal in Iceland, which has a population of just around 335,000, since 2005, but there are no statutes covering circumcision of boys. The bill describes the practice as a “violation” of young boys’ rights that should only be considered for “health reasons.”
The bill would establish a six-year prison term for anyone found guilty of “removing sexual organs in whole or in part.” Acknowledging religious objections to such a move, it states that the “rights of the child” always exceed the “right of the parents to give their children guidance when it comes to religion.”
The bill would permit children over the age of consent to decide for themselves. Although the measure doesn’t specify a certain age threshold, the age of consent for sexual relations in Iceland is 15.
The move follows advice from doctors in Denmark, who have said boys under the age of 18 should not be circumcised. The Danish Medical Association said it had considered suggesting a legal ban on the procedure for children.
The legislation was put forward by eight of Iceland’s 63-member parliament, including MPs from the Progressive Party – part of the ruling coalition in Reykjavik – the Pirate Party, the Left Greens – also in coalition – and the People’s Party.
“Protecting the health of children is a legitimate goal of every society, but in this case this concern is instrumentalized, without any scientific basis, to stigmatize certain religious communities,” said the statement from Marx.
“This is extremely worrying,” he said.
“COMECE considers any attempt on the fundamental right to freedom of religion as unacceptable,” Marx said. “The criminalization of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern.”
Aside from the religious freedom case against the bill, it’s also being contested by some physicians on medical grounds, who argue that circumcision reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and genital infections.
Marx urged institutions of the European Union to take action to prevent the measure, if passed by Iceland’s parliament, from taking effect. Although Iceland is not a member of the EU, it enjoys “privileged relations” with the union and has pledged to observe basic EU norms on human rights and freedoms.
The proposed legislation has also been condemned in a statement by the Conference of European Rabbis.
“Circumcision is an important and critical part of Jewish life and there is no authority in the world that can forbid Jews from fulfilling this important mitzvah,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the organization.
“Even though the Jewish population in Iceland is small, it is impossible to ignore the dangerous precedent set by this law and the implications that may lead to other countries,” Goldschmidt continued. “We call upon the decision-makers to immediately cancel this horrible legislation and to support Jewish life without restrictions.”
Worldwide, estimates are that roughly 25 to 35 percent of newborn males are circumcised, with rates for the procedure varying widely, from just 1 or 2 percent in nations such as Japan and Sweden to around 80 percent in Muslim nations. In the United States, the conventional estimate is that just under 60 percent of boys undergo circumcision.