Circumcisions of young boys on religious grounds should be considered as grievous bodily harm, a German court has said, in a landmark ruling that clears up a grey area for doctors.
The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents."
"The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised," the court added.
The case was brought against a doctor in Cologne, who had circumcised a four-year-old Muslim boy on his parents' wishes.
The doctor was later charged with grievous bodily harm but acquitted by a lower court which judged he had acted within the law as the parents had given their consent.
On appeal, the regional court also acquitted the doctor but for different reasons.
The regional court upheld the original charge of grievous bodily harm but ruled also that the doctor was innocent as there was too much confusion on the legal situation.
"The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision," the court said. "This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs."
Holm Putzke, a criminal law expert at the University of Passau, told the Financial Times Deutschland that the ruling was "enormously important for doctors because for the first time they have legal certainty."
"Unlike many politicians, the court has not allowed itself to be scared off by charges of anti-Semitism or religious intolerance," added Putzke.
The World Health Organisation has estimated that nearly one in three males under 15 is circumcised. In the United States, the operation is often performed for hygiene reasons on infants.
Thousands of young boys are circumcised every year in Germany, especially in the country's large Jewish and Muslim communities.