UN official says circumcision protected by freedom of religion

Heiner Bielefeldt gives boost to Jewish organizations battling to protect ancient ritual.

March 14, 2014 03:30
2 minute read.
Baby undergoes circumcision

Baby undergoes circumcision R 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A United Nations official gave a boost to the battle Jewish organizations are waging to protect the ancient ritual of circumcision, when he told the Human Rights Council it was a right that should be protected.

“Freedom of religion and belief in its application goes far beyond any pre-defined lists of classical religions,” Heiner Bielefeldt said in Geneva on Wednesday. “It protects human beings in their broad variety of convictions, and also conviction-based practices. So issues like male circumcision are part of that.”

Bielefeldt, who is the UNHRC’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion, made his brief comment on circumcision one day after he delivered a global report to the council on freedom of religion.

The report did not deal with circumcision, but the World Jewish Congress discussed the issue when it addressed the council and Bielefeldt on Wednesday morning, in a statement delivered by Lisa Rahmani.

Rahmani, a member of the WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps program, urged the council to protect Jewish male circumcision and shechita, ritual slaughter of animals. She added that religious Muslims who eat halal meat also needed protection for their ritual slaughter practices.

Shechita and circumcision are cornerstones of Jewish religious practice that date back thousands of years, Rahmani said.

“However, today we are witnessing an increasing number of government actions that seek to condemn and ban these religious practices,” Rahmani said. “We call on the special rapporteur to recognize that these practices are forms of religious expression, to recognize that they are not trumped by other values, and to ask him to consider limitations on ritual slaughter and circumcision as violations of freedom of religion in his next report to the council.”

She spoke on behalf of the WJC after European countries such as Poland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark banned shechita on humanitarian grounds. There is also a growing movement in Europe to ban circumcision, though no country has done so yet.

“Judaism was the first culture to teach that animals, and even plants, should be treated with respect, at a time when humanity had not begun to think in terms of animal rights,” Rahmani said. “Quite conveniently, some prefer to ignore the origin of the values they claim to defend.”

She added: “If opponents of shechita really cared about animals, they would have banned, for example, the cooking of live seafood in pots of boiling water; they would have banned force-feeding of geese and ducks; they would have banned hunting for sport.”

None of these things have been banned, Rahmani said, and instead the focus has been on ritual slaughter.

“In the same way, it is ironic and distressing to observe that circumcision is considered to be a mutilation when performed for religious reason, but is acceptable, and often encouraged, if performed for medical reasons,” Rahmani said.

On Thursday, Michael Colson, the WJC’s representative in Geneva, told The Jerusalem Post he was encouraged that Bielefeldt responded to them so quickly during the same session.

He was hopeful, he said, that if the next report on freedom of religion called for the protection of circumcision practices, it could influence European lawmakers who might otherwise be inclined to outlaw it.

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