(Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman promised Germany's Jewish and Muslim communities on Friday they would be free to carry out circumcision on young boys despite a court ban which has provoked concerns about religious freedom.
In a country that is especially sensitive to allegations of intolerance because of the Nazis' slaughter of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, the government said it would find a way around the Cologne court ban in June as a matter of urgency.
"For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany," said Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert. "Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment."
European rabbis descended on Berlin this week to lobby against what they see as an affront to religious freedom - with the backing of Muslim and Christian leaders in an unusual show of unity, as well as the support of many German politicians.
Ruling in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision, the Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent.
This is not acceptable under Jewish religious practice which requires boys to be circumcised from eight days old, nor for many Muslims, for whom the age of circumcision varies according to family, country and branch of Islam.
"It is well know that in the Jewish religion early circumcision carries great meaning, so it is a matter of urgency that this right be restored," said Seibert, adding that Merkel's own office would be involved in efforts to resolve the problem.
"We know a quick decision is needed and that this cannot be put off. Freedom of religious practice is a very important legal right for us," he said.
Germany is a close ally of Israel and its ambassador there has promised parliament's Diaspora Affairs Committee to defend the rights of Germany's growing Jewish community.
European rabbis ended their meeting in Berlin on Thursday in a defiant mood. They plan talks with German Muslim and Christian leaders in Stuttgart next week to see how they can fight the ban together.
The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts with a total population of just over 2 million people. The total population of Germany is about 82 million. Cologne is home to about 120,000 Muslims, whose plans for a new central mosque has stirred anti-immigrant sentiment.
The head of the Conference of European Rabbis urged Jews in Germany to continue carrying out circumcision despite the ban.
But the German Medical Association, while opposing the ban because it could drive circumcision underground with greater risk of infection through poor hygiene, advised doctors not to carry out the operation until the legal situation is cleared up as they could risk prosecution.
Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow who organized the meeting, said the ban was a fresh example of creeping prejudice in European law against non-Christians, after a Swiss ban on minarets, French and Belgian bans on Islamic veils in public and an attempted Dutch ban on halal meat.
"Circumcision represents the basis for belonging to the Jewish community. It has been practiced for 4,000 years and cannot be changed," said Goldschmidt.
Germany is home to about 120,000 Jews and 4 million Muslims. Many of the latter originating from Turkey, which has also condemned last month's court ruling.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Sobolewski; Editing by Gareth Jones and Robin Pomeroy)