(USA Today) — Iceland could become the first country in Europe to ban male circumcision, prompting criticism from religious groups about the ritual practiced in both Judaism and Islam.
The legislation being debated by Iceland's Parliament would impose a six-year jail term on anyone who "removes part or all of (a child's) sexual organs" for nonmedical reasons.
"It's an attack on freedom of religion," Ahmad Seddeeq, the Egyptian-born imam of the Islamic Cultural Center of Iceland, said Monday (Feb. 19).
Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, a lawmaker from the center-right Progressive Party, said she proposed the measure after realizing the country's ban on female genital mutilation had no equivalent to prevent male circumcision.
Iceland outlawed female genital mutilation in 2005, in line with other nations, to prevent procedures that intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for nonmedical reasons.
"We are talking about children's rights, not about freedom of belief," she said when she introduced the bill in early February. "Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe."
About 336,000 people live in Iceland, including 250 Jews and 1,500 Muslims, according to government statistics and Seddeeq.
This Nordic island nation is known for progressive legislation on gender equality. Last month, the government made it illegal for companies to pay women less than men — another world first.
The religious ritual of male circumcision, or removing the foreskin from the penis, generally occurs shortly after birth, during childhood or around puberty as a rite of passage. Jews and Muslims typically circumcise their sons to confirm or mark their relationship with God.
While the practice is often associated with Judaism, a 2007 report by the World Health Organization said Muslims are the largest religious group to perform male circumcision. An estimated 30 percent of all males globally are circumcised, and about two-thirds of them are Muslim, the organization said.
In the United States, 98 percent of Jewish men are circumcised, according to the world agency. The organization also said there is substantial evidence that male circumcision protects against diseases, such as urinary tract infections, syphilis, invasive penile cancer and HIV.
In Iceland, Gunnarsdóttir's draft law has political support in Parliament and popular backing. But religious leaders around Europe worry that Iceland's quest to protect children is trampling on religious practices and could amount to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
"Protecting the health of children is a legitimate goal of every society, but in this case (it is being used) without any scientific basis, to stigmatize certain religious communities," said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Brussels-based Catholic Church in the European Union.
Milah U.K., a British group that protects the Jewish community's right carry out religious circumcision, said, "For a country such as Iceland, that considers itself a liberal democracy, to ban it, thus making sustainable Jewish life in the country impossible, is extremely concerning."
Seddeeq pointed out that native-born Icelanders do not get circumcised, and he is not aware of any medical specialists in the country trained to perform the procedure. He took his own 3-year-old son to Egypt to have it done.
"What's the point in banning something that doesn't really exist?" he said.