There is no binding law banning male circumcision for religious reasons, the head of the Council of Europe said Wednesday, responding to concern over the recent passage of a resolution that calls the ritual into question.
On October 1, the Council of Europe’s parliament passed a non-binding resolution defining ritual circumcision as a “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
Responding to President Shimon Peres’s recent personal appeal, Thorbjorn Jagland said there were no “legal provisions regarding the practice of circumcision of young boys for religious reasons.”
“Nothing in the body of our legally binding standards would lead us to put on equal footing the issue of female genital mutilation and the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons,” Jagland wrote in his letter to Peres.
“I understand the reaction of many people, specifically from the Jewish and Muslim communities, to the Resolution,” he emphasized.
The resolution is highly unlikely to become official European policy, according to a source close to the deliberations who spoke to the Times of Israel.
The resolution passed on October 1 by a vote of 78 in favor and 13 against, with 15 abstentions.
Jagland said that the Assembly is a consultative body that does not represent the positions of the Council as a whole.
Peres on Monday sent a personal missive to Jagland on Monday asking him to intervene against the ban.
“The Jewish communities across Europe would be greatly afflicted to see their cultural and religious freedom impeded upon by the Council of Europe, and institution devoted to the protection of these very rights,” Peres wrote in the letter.
The resolution shocked many European lawmakers.
“This is the first time we’ve been confronted with such curious decisions by the Parliamentary Assembly,” said a European official, who spoke to the Times of Israel on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“Many colleagues are very surprised. You don’t expect circumcision to be in a report about children’s right to physical integrity. Many parliamentarians would have come to the meeting and voted against it had they known. I think there was a lack of awareness about this,” the official said.
In addition to defining nonconsensual ritual circumcision as a form of violence against children through its resolution, the Parliamentary Assembly also approved a recommendation to European ministers calling on them to include circumcision in new European legislation on children’s rights to physical integrity. The Committee of Ministers, comprising foreign ministers of all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, will now have to officially reply to the recommendation.
But the official said the reply will most likely be “wishy-washy,” essentially ignoring the parliamentary resolution on male circumcision while possibly condemning female genital mutilation, which is already illegal in most member countries.
“I’m sure the reply will be very noncommittal. It will be ‘we take note of the recommendations’ … I would be very surprised if they followed the Parliamentary Assembly and expressed any doubts about the practice of circumcision,” he said.
Muslim-majority member countries in the Council of Europe, including Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan are likely to oppose any legislation banning circumcision, as well as Germany, which would be forced to do so for historical reasons, the official opined. Israel has reportedly reached out to Turkey in a bid to combat the resolution together.
“I would put my hand in the fire and bet that the Committee of Ministers will not translate this into any specific, binding text,” he said.
Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe promotes cooperation between European countries on human rights, culture, law, and democratic values. Although, as a separate body from the European Union it does not pass any binding laws, the council oversees among others institutions the European Court of Human Rights.
The ritual circumcision of boys younger than 18 has come under attack increasingly in Scandinavia and German-speaking European countries, both by left-wing secularists and right-wingers who fear the influence of immigration from Muslim countries.
In Germany a year ago, the government announced legislation that would legalize ritual circumcisions if they are performed by a medical professional, three months after a local court criminalized the rite and criminal charges were filed against two rabbis. The case elicited comments from a series of Israeli officials, including Peres.
A report last year by a Jerusalem-based think tank about the spate of recent challenges to the religious rights of European Jews argued that intervention by Israeli officials could be seen as “foreign country interference and… may put local Jewish leadership in an uncomfortable position.”
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.