By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - Jewish religious leaders will hold an international meeting in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to a German court ruling against performing circumcision on baby boys, which also sparked protests from Muslims and Christians in Germany.
A court in the western city of Cologne caused an uproar in June by ruling in the case of a Muslim boy who suffered bleeding after such an operation that circumcision causes bodily harm and should only be performed on males old enough to give consent.
The head of the Conference of European Rabbis told Reuters on Monday that it was part of a trend to limit religious freedom in Europe that was targeting Jewish and Muslim traditions such as circumcision and the religious slaughter of animals for meat.
"We see this decision by a German court in the context of a new European intolerance towards other religions," said Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and organizer of the meeting to be held in Berlin on Tuesday.
He cited a Swiss ban on building new minarets on mosques, a French ban on women wearing Islamic veils in public and a failed Dutch bid to outlaw kosher and halal meat prepared by Jewish and Muslim butchers as other examples of legislation inspired by resentment at growing Muslim immigration.
Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Germany denounced the Cologne verdict as an infringement of religious freedom.
Germany's foreign minister also spoke out, arguing tolerant modern societies such as Germany should permit such faith-based traditions. Turkey protested too, while the U.N. special rapporteur on religious freedom called the ruling "nonsense".
Germany is home to about 4 million Muslims and 120,000 Jews.
The German ambassador to Israel appeared before a panel of its parliament on Monday to try to ease concerns the ruling, which he referred to as a "particularly sensitive" issue after the Nazi Holocaust, an Israeli statement said.
Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told the Diaspora Affairs Committee that the Cologne ruling pertained to only that region and that three German political parties were "advancing legislation to anchor the right to circumcision", it said.
The statement released by the Israeli committee quoted Michaelis as saying: "Clearly, the subject of a ruling on the issue of banning circumcision is particularly sensitive in Germany, because of its guilt for the Holocaust."
"But it is important to emphasize that the Jewish communities in Germany are growing and thriving," it said.
Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon, the committee chairman, said at the session that "circumcision is one of the foundations of Judaism and the last time it was restricted was in Germany at its darkest hour".
The Nazis killed 6 million Jews across Europe during World War Two, in addition to perpetrating legal and other forms of persecution against them for being members of their faith.
Jews usually circumcise male infants eight days after birth while the time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, religion and country.
Rabbi Goldschmidt was speaking from Israel where he had also addressed parliament on the issue and said he hoped Germany might use legislation to get round the Cologne court ruling.
The Cologne court, which took action after the doctor who treated the boy for bleeding notified police, did not recommend a minimum age for circumcision.
A jurist involved in the debate, professor Holm Putzke from Passau University, says many doctors object to circumcisions that are not medically necessary, but he did not know whether other German courts would copy Cologne's ruling.
Goldschmidt, whose organization represents about 700 rabbis, said he had witnessed many circumcisions on baby boys and adults - "and the older you get, the bigger surgery it is, needing more stitches and healing more slowly".
Goldschmidt added that many health organizations recommended circumcision to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, while it was very widespread in the United States among non-Muslim and non-Jewish families.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams)