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article imageIceland bid to ban circumcision riles religious groups

By Jérémie RICHARD (AFP)     Mar 1, 2018 in World

A proposed ban in Iceland on male circumcision, in defence of the rights of babies and young boys, has sparked anger among leaders of the world's three major religions.

Should the ban go through, it would be a first in Europe, where male circumcision is rare outside the Jewish and Muslim communities.

The proposal was presented by Progressive Party MP Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir, who likened circumcision of boys to the internationally condemned practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

And it calls for a six-year prison sentence for anyone causing "damage to the body or health of a child by removing all or part of his or her sexual organs."

FGM, which affects more than 200 million girls and women alive today worldwide, has been banned in Iceland since 2005.

But there is no equivalent legislation for the ritual removal of a boy's foreskin, which is practiced by a majority of Jews and Muslims, and which is widespread in North America for hygienic purposes.

"We should have the same law for all children," said Gunnarsdottir, who presented an early draft of the bill to Iceland's parliament, the Althing, on January 30.

Unless justified for health reasons, the proposed law says circumcision is "a violation of the rights" of young boys, citing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 24 of the treaty urges states to "take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children."

Gunnarsdottir's bill would seek to amend current legislation on FGM, by replacing the word "girl" with "child".

- 'Attack on religious freedom' -

The proposal is largely symbolic: the country of 348,580 people is home to very few Jews and Muslims.

Iceland's two Muslim associations count fewer than 1,000 members, according to the national statistics institute, while there are only around 250 Jews in the country.

And there have only been around 20 circumcisions carried out on the sub-Arctic island since 2006, according to Icelandic health authorities.

As circumcision is not a common practice in Icelandic culture, and as parents wishing to have their sons circumcised are faced with reticent doctors, many parents are believed to take their sons abroad to have the procedure performed.

Still, religious leaders blasted the proposal as unacceptable.

"The proposed bill is a dangerous attack on freedom of religion" and risks "stigmatising certain religious communities," Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the head of the Catholic church in the European Union.

"The criminalisation of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern," he said.

Meanwhile Avi Mayer, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organisation that works to bring Jewish immigrants to Israel, railed against the threat to "a fundamental custom of the Jewish and Muslim faiths for millennia."

Circumcision "has been encouraged and promoted by the United Nations as a way of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS," he said.

- Gives Iceland 'bad name' -

This is true for people considered to be "at risk" -- such as communities exposed to sexually transmitted infections, especially in certain regions such as Africa.

But increasingly, the scientific community in the West is shifting away from advising systematic male circumcision, as the procedure can entail health risks for the child.

The Canadian Paediatric Society, for instance, does not recommend the practice as a routine procedure because the benefits do not outweigh the risks.

The American Academy of Paediatrics says the final decision should still be left to parents to make in the context of their beliefs.

The bill is "not against religion," insists Gunnarsdottir. "It is put forward to protect children and their rights."

But Salmann Tamimi, the head of the Muslim Association of Iceland, maintains the bill was not properly thought through as the Muslim and Jewish communities were not consulted.

He said the proposal was "bad for Iceland's name."

Parliament began discussing the bill on February 8, and the debate will continue for several more months. A vote could be held before summer recess on June 7.

It is not yet known how much political support there is for a ban.

Representatives of four political parties have backed the proposal: the Progressive and Left Green parties -- two of the three coalition government parties -- as well as the People's Party and the anti-establishment Pirate Party.

More than 500 Icelandic doctors have also signed a petition supporting the ban, saying circumcision may "entail risks that outweigh the advantages".

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