Iceland is poised to become the first European country to outlaw male circumcision amid signs that the ritual common to both Judaism and Islam may be a new battleground over religious freedom.
A bill currently before the Icelandic parliament proposes a penalty of up to six years in prison for anyone carrying out a circumcision other than for medical reasons.
Critics say the move, which has sparked alarm among religious leaders across Europe, would make life for Jews and Muslims in Iceland unsustainable.
One in three men globally is thought to be circumcised, the vast majority for religious or cultural reasons.
Many Jews and Muslims fear the issue of circumcision could become a proxy for antisemitism and Islamophobia, pointing to similar tensions over religious dress and the ritual slaughter of animals for meat.
Muslim and Jewish leaders attacked the proposal, while Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Catholic Church in the European Union, said the bill was a “dangerous attack” on religious freedom.
“The criminalisation of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern.”
“The Icelandic bill says the circumcision of young boys violates their rights and is incompatible with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. It draws a parallel with female genital mutilation, already outlawed in most European countries.
“The bill says circumcisions are performed without anaesthesia, and claims the procedure is often carried out “in homes that are not sterile, and not by doctors but by religious leaders.
“There is a high risk of infections under such conditions that may lead to death.”
It acknowledges that while parents have the right to give religious guidance to their children, “such a right can never exceed the rights of the child”.
Boys who wish to be circumcised for religious or cultural reasons can do so when they reach an age at which they “understand what is involved in such an action”, it suggests.
Iceland’s population of about 336,000 includes tiny Jewish and Muslim communities. There are thought to be some 250 Jews and about 1,500 Muslims.