A new bill proposed in Iceland that would make circumcision punishable by up to six years in prison is a “dangerous attack” on religious freedom, Cardinal Reinhard Marx has said.
“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 stigmatise certain religious communities. This is extremely worrying,” Marx said in a statement.
Marx commented on the issue as President of the Catholic Church in the European Union (COMECE). While Iceland does not belong to the European Union, it does have “privileged relations” with EU countries, COMECE noted.
“COMECE considers any attempt on the fundamental right to freedom of religion as unacceptable. The criminalisation of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern,” Marx added.
Circumcision is a religious ritual for many, notably Jews and Muslims. Jews typically circumcise infant boys eight days after birth, while Muslim practices vary widely.
The proposed bill states that “Anyone who...causes damage to the body or health of a child or a woman by...removing sexual organs shall be imprisoned for up to 6 years.”
The bill specifically states that circumcisions on boys, if performed for non-medical reasons, would be banned in Iceland under the bill. Female circumcision has been banned in Iceland since 2005.
Male circumcisions used to be “generally encouraged...to prevent various disorders and behaviors,” the bill states.
“In recent years, this view has been expanding, and is quite widespread in Europe, that the execution of a construction for a purpose other than a medical is a violation of human rights boys because of irreversible interventions in their bodies,” it states, and carries a risk of infection.
The bill also states that circumcision of young boys violates “Article 12. UN Convention on the Rights of Children to Affect Your Own Life” as well as “paragraph 3. Article 24 which guarantees children protection against traditions that are harmful to children's health.”
While the bill does not define at what age childhood ends, the age of sexual consent in Iceland is 15 years of age.
According to Mayo Clinic, circumcision may have some health benefits, including easier hygiene, decreased risk of urinary tract infections, decreased risk of sexually transmitted infections, and a decreased risk of penile cancer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks, although they encourage parental discretion in the decision.
The health risks and benefits have been a topic of debate for several years in some European countries, although none have banned the practice outright.
Iceland, which has a population of around 334,000, has a small Muslim population of a few hundred people, and an even smaller Jewish population of around 100 people.
While Iceland has no designated Rabbi, Jewish news source ynetnews.com reports that Chief Rabbi of Denmark Yair Melchior and the Rabbi of Oslo, Yoav Melchior are campaigning against the bill on behalf of the Jewish population in Iceland.
"Iceland does not have a significant Jewish or Muslim population; therefore there are hardly any opponents to the bill. Only considerable international pressure can help," the Rabbis told ynetnews.
"There is no country in the world now that bans circumcision. This sets a dangerous precedent that may affect other countries; the Danish parliament is now considering such a bill as well," they added. The Danish Medical Association has advised against male circumcision in boys for several years, though no ban has been enacted in the country.
The European Conference of Rabbis also voiced their opposition to the bill in a statement, as reported in ynetnews.
"Circumcision is a critical part of Jewish life and no authority in the world can forbid Jews from carrying out this commandment," they said.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the group, added that "although the Icelandic Jewish community is small, we cannot ignore the dangerous precedent that this law can set and the consequences that such legislation can cause in other countries.”
"We call on lawmakers to immediately rescind this miserable piece of legislation and continue supporting Jewish life without limits."
It is unclear when the bill would be up for a vote.
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