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Outlawing circumcision: The debate explodes in Denmark … and elsewhere



Paul De Maeyer - published on 06/11/18

"A dangerous attack on religious freedom" for Jews, Muslims, and Christians

In upcoming months, the unicameral parliament of Denmark—the Folketing—will have to examine a popular initiative which has the goal of introducing in the country a minimum age of 18 for medically unnecessary male circumcision. The Independent and the New York Times are among the media that have reported on the story.

Indeed, on Friday, June 1, 2018, a petition to this effect attained the required 50,000 signatures on the site (the official site of the parliament for popular initiatives), forcing the Danish representatives to organize (most likely after the summer break) a debate and a vote on the proposal by the Intact Denmark pressure group.

“If people want to let themselves be circumcised, they should have the opportunity to make that decision as adults. Otherwise, they should be permitted to grow up with their body intact,” said Lena Nyhus, the president of the movement, last January.

According to a survey carried out by the polling company Megafon for the TV2 Danish television channel, 83 percent of Danes—more than 8 out of 10 citizens—are in favor of introducing such an age limit, or mindstealder (in Danish).

The Danish government is less enthusiastic, being concerned about the country’s image abroad. After a ban on the burqa and niqab was approved last May 31 by the Folketing, a new ban with a strong religious impact would risk creating negative reactions in the Muslim world (remember the protests due to the publication in September 2005 of some caricatures of Mohammed in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper), in Israel and also in the USA, where a significant part of the male population is circumcised. In the period from 1979 to 2010, nearly 60 percent of American male newborns were circumcised when they were released from the hospital.

“From an American perspective this would be incomprehensible,” said the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anders Samuelsen, quoted in the online news outlet Altinget, and “completely incomprehensible” for both Jews and Muslims. “It makes us vulnerable,” continued Samuelson, who fears the loss of precious allies.

His sentiments were echoed by the Defense Minister, Claus Hjort Frederiksen, who spoke of an “enormous” political risk. “There’s a risk that it could suddenly begin to explode on social media,” he warned.

Waseem Hussain, an imam in Copenhagen, explains to the New York Times that “some rites are central for identity and belonging … Circumcision is one of them.” Hussain then expressed his fear that the next subject of discussion could be focused on wearing the veil, praying, reading the Bible, or going to church on Sunday.

“The proposal starts from the premise that the Jews are child molesters,” underlined Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, president of the Jewish Society of Denmark (Det Jødiske Samfund i Danmark).

“Skepticism towards religion, which has become normal in most of Denmark, now threatens the right of religious minorities to exist alongside their secular fellow citizens,” reads a message on the organization’s website,, which has published a series of “Facts and myths about circumcision.”

By contrast, Naser Khader, a Muslim representative of Syrian origin who belongs to the Conservative People’s Party, defends the proposal. “There’s too much emphasis on the religious and cultural rights of parents. For me, the rights of children are more important,” he said to the Altinget website.

From a medical point of view, it’s not clear whether circumcision should be avoided, or if it carries health benefits.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) tends to emphasize the advantages of male circumcision for AIDS prevention, a—notably—Danish study published in The Surgeon magazine claims that circumcised men are up to 26 times more likely to suffer from a urethral stricture than uncircumcised men.

Denmark isn’t the first Nordic country to debate the eventual banning of medically unnecessary circumcision for men who have not yet reached the age of consent.

Just a few months ago, at the end of January, Icelandic representative Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir proposed a similar initiative in the monocameral parliament of Reykjavík (Althing), with penalties of up to six years in prison for anyone causing damage to the body or health of an infant, whether male or female, “removing all or part of the sexual organs.”

With her initiative, the representative of the Progressive Party aimed to extend to infant boys the Icelanding law which, since 2005, bans female genital mutilation (FMG), even if the differences between the two practices are considerable and substantial.

Although it received the support of 500 Icelandic doctors, the initiative was rejected by religious leaders, among whom was the then-president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European community (COMECE), Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

In a declaration made public last February 6, Cardinal Marx, the archbishop of Monaco and Freising, defined the proposal as “a dangerous attack on religious freedom,” which also “stigmatizes” certain religious communities. “This is very worrying,” Marx said.

Representatives of the Jewish communities of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have published an open letter expressing their concern to the members of the Icelandic parliament. “Iceland would be the only country in modern times to ban one of the most central rites—if not the most central rite—of Jewish tradition,” they warn.

The comment of the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni, is also clear. “If Joseph and Mary had lived in Iceland, they would have spent six years in prison for having circumcised their son,” he told Italian news agency SIR (Servizio Informazione Religiosa, “Religous Information Service”).

To warn about the danger, the Interreligious Forum in Iceland organized a conference in Reykjavík last April 17, whose spokesman, Fr. Jacob Rolland, was abundantly clear. “The law, as we see it, puts into question human rights and religious freedom,” he explained in an interview with SIR.

“If a Jewish family lives in Iceland and needs to […] circumcise their own child within eight days, they actually risk a punishment of 6 years in prison, if the law passes. It’s a very heavy sentence that de facto forces Jewish families to leave the country,” Fr. Rolland said. “It means we in Iceland are living a similar situation to that in 1933 when Hitler took power in Germany,” the priest said, speaking of “an attack on Jews, because for them, circumcision is an obligation.”

The protests and pressure have worked; at the end of April, the parliament of Reykjavík decided to set aside the proposed law. Now, it remains to be seen what their colleagues at the Folketing of Copenhagen will decide.

Religious Freedom
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