By Elisa Oddone
BERLIN (Reuters) - A German court's ban on circumcising baby boys has provoked a rare show of unity between Jews, Muslims and Christians who see it as a threat to religious freedom, while doctors warn it could increase health risks by forcing the practice underground.
European rabbis meeting in Berlin on Thursday promised to defy the ruling by a court in the city of Cologne last month. They plan further talks with Muslim and Christian leaders in Stuttgart next week to see how they can fight the ban together.
"We urge the Jewish community in Germany and circumcisers to continue to perform circumcisions and not to wait for a change in the law," said Pinchas Goldschmidt, Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and organizer of the three-day meeting.
Goldschmidt says the ban poses a threat to the existence of the Jewish community in Germany and is a new example of creeping prejudice in European law against non-Christians, after a Swiss ban on minarets, French and Belgian bans on Islamic veils in public, and an attempted Dutch ban on halal meat.
The Cologne court took action after police were alerted by a doctor who treated a Muslim boy for bleeding after he underwent circumcision. It emphasized it did not ban circumcision, but wanted families to wait until their sons were older. So far the ban applies only to the area of the Cologne court's jurisdiction.
In a country that is sensitive to charges of intolerance and discrimination, especially against Jews because of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War Two, many politicians including the foreign minister have criticized the ruling.
Germany is home to about 120,000 Jews and 4 million Muslims. Many of the latter are originally from Turkey, which also condemned last month's court ruling.
The rabbis have lobbied members of the German and European parliaments to push for legislation that would stop the ban from being copied by other parts of Germany and Europe. This could be done via a law to exempt religious minorities, similar to that which permits the religious preparation of kosher and halal meat.
Jewish and Muslim religious leaders met European Parliament officials in Brussels this week to complain about what they called "an affront to our basic religious and human rights".
Germany's opposition Greens promised on Thursday to help seek legislation that would entrench religious freedoms for Jews and Muslims.
"After the summer break we want to discuss with experts and relevant groups whether there is a way to tackle this problem in a legal way and to guarantee the legal rights of Jews and Muslims," said senior Green lawmaker Renate Kuenast.
Jews usually circumcise male infants eight days after birth, while the time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, religion and country.
"Circumcision represents the basis for belonging to the Jewish community. It has been practiced for 4,000 years and cannot be changed," Goldschmidt told a news conference.
The 40 rabbis attending the Berlin conference decided to gather Jewish circumcisers in Germany into one association to further guarantee safety standards in the operation.
"Jewish families having babies now don't know how to behave because they are afraid. Circumcisers continuously call us to ask whether they can perform circumcisions or not. Things cannot continue like this," said German rabbi Avichai Apel.
The head of the German Medical Association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, said the ban meant there was "an increased risk of this task being performed by lay people which, because of poor hygiene conditions, could lead to serious complications".
But Montgomery said he sadly had to advise his colleagues to refrain from performing the operation until the legal situation had been clarified, "otherwise they could face prosecution".
The World Health Organisation cites research showing that male circumcision can reduce the risk of AIDS, and 44 members of parliament in Zimbabwe underwent circumcision in June to promote awareness of HIV/AIDS.
Germany's ambassador to Israel has assured lawmakers there that Berlin will try to resolve the problem quickly, while the justice minister has advised the Jewish and Muslim communities to seek redress via Germany's Constitutional Court.
"I see that within a democracy there are different bodies taking part in the lawmaking process but from our point of view, the deadline is not tomorrow but yesterday," responded Rabbi Goldschmidt.
He warned that many of Germany's Jewish community, which has grown from just 3,000 in 1945 following the Holocaust, could end up emigrating if Germany cannot ensure full religious freedom.
(Writing by Stephen Brown and Gareth Jones, editing by Mark Trevelyan)