Two leading members of the U.S. Congress have penned a letter urging Iceland to stop what they labeled an “intolerant bill” that would criminalize bris milah and other forms of religious circumcision in the small island nation. The appeal addresses legislation that was introduced in Iceland’s parliament this past February that would slap parents with prison sentences of up to six years for circumcising their sons.
“If passed into law, this measure would create insurmountable challenges for Jews and Muslims living in Iceland,” reads the letter signed by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chair of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY), the committee’s ranking minority member. “The impact of this would be felt far beyond Iceland’s borders. This move would make Iceland the first and only European nation to outlaw circumcision. While Jewish and Muslim populations of Iceland may be small, your country’s ban could be exploited by those who stoke xenophobia and anti-Semitism in countries with more diverse populations.”
The letter also notes that outlawing the procedure would “be sending a clear message to tourists, immigrants, and the world that Iceland is not a country fully accepting of different faiths and cultures.”
While the measure has yet to come for a vote, it reportedly has won wide support among Iceland’s legislators. It was championed by a Danish “children’s rights” group. The bill states that while children would be able to undergo the procedure once they are older, it is considered an infringement on their rights for parents to have it performed on them when they are babies.
Within a week of the proposal’s introduction in Iceland, a grass-roots petition-based campaign was started to bring a nearly identical bill to Denmark’s parliament, seemingly confirming the fear of religious communities that Iceland’s move could set off a domino effect.
A wide range of European Jewish and Muslim groups, as well as the central European body for the Catholic Church, have all decried the bill as an infringement on fundamental religious rights.
The Congressional letter was initiated by the Orthodox Union following a meeting between several Jewish groups with Iceland’s ambassador to Washington, Geir Haarde, to discuss the matter.
“We call upon all who support religious freedom to join us in ensuring that the proposed ban on this sacred Jewish rite is not enacted in Iceland, nor in any nation that holds itself out as a democracy,” said Orthodox Union president Moishe Bane.
Iceland’s population of 336,000 is overwhelmingly secular. The Muslim population is estimated at 1,500 and there are thought to be around 250 Jews there. Shortly before the ban was proposed, Rabbi Avraham Feldman was named the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to the capitol city of Reykjavik, making him what is thought to be the nation’s first full-time Rabbi for its small community.
Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s vice president for Federal Affairs and Washington director, attended the meeting with Ambassador Haarde a few weeks ago. Also participating were representatives from the UJA-Federation, the World Jewish Congress, and the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry.
“[Ambassador Haarde] received us very cordially [and] I would say that his reaction was more of an analysis than anything else,” Rabbi Cohen told Hamodia. “He said that the legislative session is ending soon and that this was not something the government is putting its weight behind, but that it could still happen now or at some point in the future.”
At the meeting, Ambassador Haarde acknowledged that he and other representatives of Iceland’s government had been contacted by several international Jewish and Muslim groups who oppose the measure and Sam Brownback, the U.S.’s ambassador for International Religious Freedom, has told Jewish groups he too planned to voice the administration’s objection to the bill.
“I think that international input is what could make a difference to let them know our concerns not only about religious liberty, but to present the facts that the major medical groups in the U.S. consider it non-harmful and even beneficial,” said Rabbi Cohen. “The number of circumcisions in Iceland is minuscule … but we made it clear that [the bill] could have much broader repercussions.”