Algerian Convicted: The Rite of Circumcision Put in a Bad Light

Le Figaro, 21 February 1996.

This Religious Practice is Better Controlled by Jews than by Muslims

For the first time in the annals of justice, a Muslim circumciser was prosecuted by the French judicial system because of his ritual activities.

Mohand Berkache, a 66 year-old Algerian, was convicted Monday by the tribunal of Saint-Etienne to six months in prison with a fine of 5,000 francs for "intentional armed violence." The "arm" used by this humble pensioner was a simple pair of scissors with rounded tips.

Following his surgeries, several families of Turkish origin living in Puy-de Dome and in l'Isere had to take their children to the hospital. Five of them, between the ages of 3 and 7, presented with abnormal hemorrhage. The Department of Social Services and the physicians in attendance concluded in their report that there had occurred "a major mutilation of the penis with a significant loss of skin and blood." Mohand Berkache was investigated and barred from practice in September 1994. In the course of the trial, the expert witness qualified his acts as "a barbaric practice and an act of savagery."

"There was no intention to harm on the part of my client," explained the lawyer for the convicted, M. Tahar Smiai, who plans to appeal the conviction.

"Circumcision is not a barbaric act. There can be complications, but in this case, they were not so bad. Muslim families often prefer to go to a man of faith rather than to a hospital."

The sentence handed down by the tribunal of Saint-Etienne raises the question of controlling circumcision in France. Where does religion end and where does medicine begin? The rules are less compulsive in Islam than in Judaism.

In the Arabic-Muslim world, circumcision, which is a ritual and obligatory act for boys attaining puberty, has for a long time been practiced outside the realm of the hospital and instead by barbers and hairdressers.

In France, however, the act is considered by law to be a surgical operation.

It must be performed by a physician. If the physician is a layman, he is assisted by a religious personage. "The Muslim community is poorly informed," says the rector of the mosque of Paris, Dr. Baubakeur. "The circumciser of Saint-Etienne remains within the tradition, but he is not a surgeon. In this case, they sanction is symbolic."

Among the Jews, the act is reserved for the "Mohel," a certified religious personage who, in most cases, has medical competence.

Alexandrine BOUILHET

[Translated by Frederick Hodges]

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