German Jews, Muslims unite to protest against circumcision ban

Berlin, Germany - Hundreds of German Jews and Muslims held a joint rally in Berlin on Sunday demanding that their "freedom of religion" be respected, in a rare show of unity to protest against a court order that banned ritual circumcisions.

The June ruling by a court in Cologne has sparked an emotive debate about religious freedom in a country which is sensitive to any accusations of intolerance because of its Nazi past.

Although the ban applied only to the Cologne region, doctors across the country have refused to carry out operations because of what they say is a risk of legal action.

Some 300 Muslim and Jewish protestors and their supporters gathered together at Berlin's Bebelplatz square, known as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony.

They waved banners reading "Foreskin? No Thank you", or "Finally, Germany is a colonial power again" against a cartoon image of a boy whose foreskin was the colors of the German flag. Some came wrapped in the Israeli flag.

"We were getting sick and tired of all the heated and incompetent gibberish on circumcisions," Lala Suesskind, the former head of Berlin's Jewish community, told Reuters.

"So today, we want to clarify a few things through our rabbi ... what circumcision really is and what circumcision means to our religion," she added.

Jewish religious practice requires boys to be circumcised from eight days old, while for Muslims, the age at which it is carried out varies according to family, country and branch of Islam.

Berlin last week became the first of Germany's 16 states to protect the practice, saying that doctors could legally circumcise infant boys for religious reasons.

The national government is working on a new law to legalize the operation across the country in order to overrule the Cologne decision.

"The German government must introduce a law which will result in circumcisions remaining exempt from punishment," said the head of Germany's Turkish community, Kenan Kolat.

"For years, we have had the abortion debate. Abortion too is a physical intervention and there too, laws have been passed which make certain acts exempt from punishment, combined with counseling. Here too, there can be counseling so that people get informed," Kolat said.

The speed with which national lawmakers agreed in July to pass a new law underscored their sensitivity to charges of intolerance and discrimination, especially against Jews because of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War Two.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany risked becoming a "laughing stock" if Jews were not allowed to practise their rituals.

About 120,000 Jews are registered as living in Germany along with around 4 million Muslims, many of whom are from Turkey.

Ruling in the case of a Muslim boy who suffered bleeding after circumcision, the Cologne court said the practice inflicted bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, though could be practised on older males with consent.