The idea prompts uncomfortable questions about human rights, religious freedom and Denmark’s international interests.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark has a long record of taking daring steps on issues like gender rights, development aid and green energy. But government ministers have reacted with dismay to the prospect of debating another potential world first: a ban on circumcising boys.
The idea prompts uncomfortable questions about human rights, religious freedom and Denmark’s international interests. Even so, the country’s Parliament will soon be forced to consider it.
In Denmark, any proposal that can gather 50,000 signatures on Parliament’s official petition website is legally entitled to a debate and vote. A citizens petition demanding a minimum age of 18 for circumcision to protect “children’s fundamental rights” reached that threshold Friday.
There’s no deadline for Parliament to react, but any action most likely won’t happen before the fall, when it reconvenes.
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“It will put children’s rights ahead of their parents’ religious rights,” said Naser Khader, a member of Parliament and spokesman on human rights and legal affairs for the Conservative Party, which is a junior partner in the governing coalition.
Some are not enthusiastic about the proposal. “We’d be all alone and the first country in the world to go in that direction. That’s our objective analysis,” Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said recently. “It makes us vulnerable and it means that the allies who normally help us in a precarious situation, will, in this situation, not be by our side.”
Defense Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen has suggested a ban would raise security concerns. “I think the political risk is enormous,” he said, adding that in an age of fake news and “Russian troll factories,” moves toward an age limit would be likely to explode on social media.
A similar measure has passed an initial parliamentary vote in Iceland, but it has yet to become law and might never do so.
The Danish proposal is unlikely to achieve a majority vote in Parliament, but one recent survey, by the polling company Megafon for the television network TV2, found that 83 percent of voters supported a ban on circumcising boys. Political support for the measure has horrified many Danish Jews and Muslims; the operation is relatively uncommon in Denmark, and carried out almost exclusively for religious reasons.
“This spring has been nightmarish for the Jewish community,” said Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, chairman of The Jewish Community in Denmark. “The proposal takes as a starting point that Jews are child molesters.”
A ban would “make it difficult for the next generation of Jews to maintain a religious life in Denmark,” he added.
Waseem Hussain, an imam from the Danish Islamic Center in Copenhagen, said: “Some rituals are central to identity and belonging. Circumcision is one of them,” adding of the proposed ban: “It shows a willingness to submit religious freedom to other liberties. Next up for discussion could be the right to wear a veil, to pray, to read the Bible or go to church on Sundays.”
A possible age limit has been a simmering issue on the political agenda in Denmark, but no major party has sought to push it forward. Pressure has come instead from campaigning groups such as Intact, which started the petition.
Of nine political parties in Parliament, three — including two in the governing coalition — have taken the rare step of letting lawmakers choose independently how to vote on the issue. Two parties are in favor of an age limit and four will vote against.
A string of Danish organizations working on health or children’s rights discourage circumcision on ethical grounds, but have not found reason to advocate an outright ban. Indeed, there is evidence pointing in the other direction: The World Health Organization has found that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV by 60 percent for heterosexual males.
Khader, the lawmaker who favors an age limit, is Muslim. He said he made up his mind about the issue in 2004, when he faced family pressure to have his newborn son circumcised.
“It’s an unnecessary violation,” he said, adding: “I’ve been passive on this issue, because I recognize there’s a huge challenge for the Jewish community here. I don’t want to bother them and make life difficult for them.”
Experts estimate that 38 percent of men worldwide are circumcised, half for religious reasons.
Denmark is an increasingly secular country — its percentage of self-declared nonbelievers grew to 48 percent last year from 31 percent in 2011. But religion in general, and Islam in particular, has often been a source of public controversy.
On Thursday, Parliament approved a law to ban the wearing of full-face coverings in public, mostly seen as directed at the Islamic veil. And the immigration minister recently stirred controversy by suggesting that fasting Muslims were a danger to society.
Christian practices have also been called into question when some priests have objected to free abortion services or refused to perform weddings where one party is divorced.
The U.S. Embassy in Denmark has raised concerns about the anti-circumcision proposal “from the perspective of freedom of religion,” according to a statement given by its first secretary and public-affairs officer, Daniel J. Ernst, to the daily newspaper Politiken. “While the American government can’t tell Denmark how to legislate on male circumcision, it is making its position clear,” he wrote.
To Nima Zamani, a radio host born in Denmark to Iranian refugees, the issue of circumcision is personal. He was circumcised as a child because his parents were expecting at the time to return to Iran and not doing so, he said, would have been considered shameful there.
“There was no way of hiding it if I hadn’t been circumcised,” he said.
The family remained in Denmark, and Zamani has come to disagree with the decision his parents made on his behalf.
“In democratic countries there’s a freedom of religion, but there’s also a freedom from forced religion,” he said. He would favor limits introduced slowly over years, to allow religious groups to reflect and adjust.
“In many countries they sacrifice animals to honor God, but we don’t do that here because we’re enlightened, smarter and there’s animal ethics,” he added.
But to Hussain, the imam, a focus on infant circumcision makes little sense in light of thousands of years of practice and few complaints from circumcised men. Besides, he argued, parents decided almost everything else in a child’s life: “How much freedom does a child have anyway?”