On Tuesday April 17 the Inter Faith Forum of Iceland, an informal group of 17 religious organizations, Jews, Muslims, Christians, registered in Iceland for the promotion of inter religious dialogue, organizes a conference at the Nordic House in Reykjavík on the circumcision of boys. The initiative will serve as a platform for dialogue and reflection to express publically opinions and concerns on human rights and religious freedom with regard to a law highly contested by religious leaders, up for debate at the Parliament of Iceland. The bill presented by 7 members of the Icelandic Parliament aims at criminalising the circumcision of boys, a practice carried out for cultural and religious reasons by Muslims and Jews in many parts of the world. The bill envisages a penalty of up to 6 years in prison for whoever practices circumcision for non-medical purposes. Prominent speakers from Iceland and abroad will attend the Conference, religious representatives as well as members of the medical profession. Participants include, inter alia, Father Heikki Huttunen, Secretary General of the Conference of European Churches (CEC), and Msgr. Duarte da Cunha, Secretary General of the Council of Europe’s Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), signalling the interest with which European Churches are following the developments of the issue in Iceland. “The population majority and probably also the majority in Parliament support this law”, Father Jakob Rolland, spokesperson of the Forum promoting the Conference, told SIR. “If the law were approved Iceland would become the first world Country to ban circumcision. This means that Muslims and Jews would be de facto forced to leave the Country.” The law must be discussed in Parliament at least 3 times prior to approval. It has been discussed once and the dates of the remaining two debate sessions have not yet been made known.
Father Rolland, what worries religious leaders?
Iceland is an island and there’s a tendency to listen to one side alone. Until now only the voice of those supporting the law has been heard. The purpose of the Conference is to provide Jews and Muslims with the possibility of allowing public opinion to know their reasons through news media. In our opinion the law violates human rights and religious freedom. That’s the point.
Could you explain why in your opinion this bill violates freedom of religion?
A Jewish family in Iceland that circumcises their child – according to Jewish law –before the eighth day of life, risks a penalty of up to 6 years imprisonment, if the law is adopted. It’s an extremely harsh punishment that would force Jewish families to leave the Country. It means that Iceland is living the same situation of 1933 when Hitler seized power in Germany.
Many are afraid, they are under the impression that this law is but the first step marking the resurgence of anti-Semitism.
What has led MPs to present a bill that outlaws circumcision? Are they concerned for the health of the child?
They have no concerns about the health of the child. Those who support the law claim that the project supports the rights of the child. They oppose physical intervention for non-medical reasons, carried out with an irreversible practice, also in light of the fact that boys are not able to give an informed consent. However the same UN Declaration states that
the best interest of the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should be to grow up in a family environment, with due regard to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.
We therefore believe that if the law were approved it would seriously harm the child, who risks being deprived of his culture, his family, and his environment.
What message does Iceland risk giving to Europe?
Not only to Europe, to the whole world! It’s ultimately an attack against Jews, since for the Jewish people circumcision is a religious obligation. It means that in Ireland Jews are persona non grata. It means that the Country is demanding a change in religious practice. But no one can be forced to change his or her religion with a law. It would also carry serious diplomatic consequences with repercussions on the economy. A third of the world’s population is circumcised. Circumcision is practiced not only for religious reasons but also for health reasons. Especially in Africa, but also in the United States, where over 80% of all males are circumcised.
What are you hoping for? What concrete results do you expect from the Conference?
There have been results already. I presented the Conference and the list of participants to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Two days later he published a strong Statement calling upon MPs to think twice before approving the law, considering above all the image of Iceland in the word. We consider this a success.