Circumcision Practices around the World

Circumcision in Europe

  Circumcision is not commonly performed in most European countries, and routine infant circumcision does not exist. The circumcision rate is generally estimated to be around 10-15%, but this rate varies greatly from country to country. E.g., before the Second World War, circumcision was quite popular in Great Britain, with a circumicision rate of around 30%. This changed, however, after the War, when the National Health Service became Government operated. In order to save money, most elective procedures and surgeries (including circumcision) were done away with.

  There are many reasons for the general absence of circumcision. Probably the most important one is ignorance: most Europeans are not aware of the fact that circumcision is not only a religious rite, but is also performed for health and cultural reasons. This lack of knowledge about circumcision is discussed in many of the testimonies from European men in the section Personal Testimonies.

  The ignorance about circumcision is furthermore enforced by existing taboos, many of which are related to its religious connotations. In many European societies there is still a lingering, and often strong, Anti-Semitic sentiment. Since being circumcised is perceived by most Europeans to be a sign of being Jewish (or Muslim), many parents will be hesitant to circumcise their sons for fear that they might be taunted or harassed (or worse). There are unfortunately enough harrowing cases in the news about skinheads attacking people as well as property that they regard as being Jewish to support this fear.

  However, there are signs that attitudes are starting to change. After the Second World War, and especially since the sixties, there has been a large influx of Muslim immigrants to Europe (people from India and Pakistan to Great Britian, North Africans to France, and Turks to Germany). Since these immigrants are mostly Muslim, and nowadays form a sizable portion of the population of the countries they live in, the subject of circumcision has become more broadly known through reports in the media. This, in turn, has laid the foundation for a more open discussion of the subject. As a result, many people have become interested in the subject, and circumcision rates amongst Europeans are starting to increase (for links to German internet sites, see here).

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Circumcision in Africa

Circumcision Rites in Africa

  Circumcision is practiced by many different cultures all over Africa. In the predominantly Muslim Northern and Western Africa, circumcision is practiced as a religious rite, while in Eastern and Southern Africa circumcision is considered as a rite of passage into manhood. As an initiation rite, it has been part of the various cultures that practice it for as long as people can remember. Although the different tribes have different circumcision ceremonies, there are still many things that they have in common.

  A very typical case is the Xhosa ceremony. Before a Xhosa boy is considerd to be a man by the others of his tribe, he has to to go through the initiation of the Khwetha, or circumcision lodge. Otherwise he would still be considered a boy and no girl would consider marrying him.

  During the time of the initiation, the young men live in special huts, secluded from the rest of the tribe and especially from any females. They undergo training and endurance tests, which require great discipline. All aspects of the initiation are kept very secret.

  The boys cover themselves all over with white sandstone and wrap themselves in a reed skirt and a reed cone headdress with a fringe-like mask. During the ceremony, which can take more than a week, they also perform ritual dances imitating animals, usually a bull.

  Finally when the day of the circumcision comes they burn all the items that they have used in the rituals including the huts. After the circumcision they are required to bury their foreskin and are driven to the river while being beaten by the initiators. Finally all the white sandstone is washed from their bodies and with it the last vestiges of their youth. They return to their villages and are daubed with red ochre which is not removed for another three months. After this, they are considered to be men.

  In his autobiography, A long Walk to Freedom, President Nelson Mandela gave a very moving account of his own initiation.

Links To More Information about African Circumcision Rites

    Information about the Luo's Circumcision Rites.

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Lack of Circumcision and the spread of AIDS in Africa

  The connection between circumcision and HIV infection on the African Continent has been studied in great detail. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, the majority of HIV infections occur in heterosexual persons, and secondly, circumcision is very often practiced by some tribes and not by others in the same geographical region.

  Epidemiologic evidence, accumulated over many years, has provided conclusive evidence that HIV infections are more prevalent among uncircumcised men [1]. A recent study of more then ten thousand men in Tanzania has found that the risk of infection with the HIV virus during sexual intercourse is reduced by as much as a third in circumcised men [2]. Many other independent studies have reached the same conclusion [3], [4].

  One of the main reasons for the reduced risk of infection is the absence of the foreskin, which is very prone to injuries, makes it harder for the HIV virus to be transmitted.

  More information about the connection between the lack of circumcision and the spread of STD (including HIV) can be found in the Section The Lack of Circumcision and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. For an excellent review about AIDS in Africa, see here.


1. E.J. Schoen, Circumcision Updated-Indicated? Pediatrics 1993; 92: 860-1;   and references therein

2. Urassa M et al. Male circumcision and susceptibility to HIV infection among men in Tanzania AIDS 1997: 11; 73-79

3. Kiwanuka N, Gray R et al. Religion, behaviours, and circumcision as determinants of HIV dynamics in rural Uganda AIDSLINE MED

4. Seed J, Allen S, Mertens T et al. Male circumcision, sexually transmitted disease, and risk of HIV AIDSLINE MED

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Circumcision Performed as a Religious Rite
(Judaism and Islam)

  For both Jews and Muslims the practice of circumcision has a great religious significance.

  For Jews, it was introduced as part of Godīs covenant with Abraham. In accordance with this covenant, all infant boys must be circumcised on the eighth day by a trained religious person called a Mohel.

  Of all of the commandments in Judaism, the brit milah (literally, Covenant of Circumcision) is probably the one most universally observed. It is commonly referred to as a bris (covenant, using the Ashkenazic pronunciation). Even the most secular of Jews, who observe no other part of Judaism, are almost always circumcised. Of course, in the United States, the majority of males are routinely circumcised, so this doesn't seem very surprising. But keep in mind that there is more to the ritual of the brit milah than merely the process of physically removing the foreskin, and many otherwise non-observant Jews observe the entire ritual.

  The commandment to circumcise is given at Gen. 17:10-14 and Lev. 12:3. The covenant was originally made with Abraham. It is the first commandment specific to the Jews.

  Like so many Jewish commandments, the brit milah is commonly perceived to be a hygienic measure; however the biblical text states the reason for this commandment quite clearly: circumcision is an outward physical sign of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is also a sign that the Jewish people will be perpetuated through the circumcised man. The health benefits of this practice are merely incidental. It is worth noting, however, that circumcised males have a lower risk of certain cancers, and the sexual partners of circumcised males also have a lower risk of certain cancers.

  The commandment is binding upon both the father of the child and the child himself. If a father does not have his son circumcised, the son is obligated to have himself circumcised as soon as he becomes an adult. A person who is uncircumcised suffers the penalty of kareit, spiritual excision; in other words, regardless of how good a Jew he is in all other ways, a man has no place in the "World to Come" if he is uncircumcised.

  Circumcision is performed when the child is eight days old. The day the child is born counts as the first day, thus if the child is born on a Wednesday, he is circumcised on the following Wednesday. Keep in mind that Jewish days begin at sunset, so if the child is born on a Wednesday evening, he is circumcised the following Thursday. Circumcisions are performed on Shabbat, even though they involve the drawing of blood which is ordinarily forbidden on the sabbath. The Bible does not specify a reason for the choice of the eighth day; however, modern medicine has revealed that an infant's blood clotting mechanism stabilizes on the eighth day after birth. As with almost any commandment, circumcision can be postponed for health reasons. Jewish law provides that where the child's health is at issue, circumcision must wait until seven days after a doctor declares the child healthy enough to undergo the procedure.

  Circumcision involves surgically removing the foreskin of the penis. Although some cultures have a similar circumcision ritual for females, circumcision in Judaism applies only to males. The circumcision is performed by a mohel, an observant Jew educated in the relevant Jewish law and in surgical techniques. Circumcision performed by a regular physician does not qualify as a valid brit milah, regardless of whether a rabbi says a blessing over it, because the removal of the foreskin is itself a religious ritual that must be performed by someone religiously qualified.

  If the child is born without a foreskin (it happens occasionally), or if the child was previously circumcised without the appropriate religious intent or in a manner that rendered the circumcision religiously invalid, a symbolic circumcision may be performed by taking a pinprick of blood from the tip of the penis. This is referred to as hatafat dam brit.

  While the circumcision is performed, the child is held by a person called a sandek (godfather). The sandek is usually a grandparent or the family rabbi. Traditionally, a chair (often an ornate one) is set aside for Elijah, who is said to preside over all circumcisions. Various blessings are recited, including one over wine, and a drop of wine is placed in the child's mouth. The child is then given a formal Hebrew name. It is not necessary to have a minyan (prayer) for a bris, but it is desirable if feasible. As with most Jewish life events, the ritual is followed by refreshments or a festive meal.

Circumcision mentioned in the Bible:

  1. God first established circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, Gen. 17:10-14.
  2. Abraham (and his entire male household) was circumcised when he was 99 years old.
  3. From that day forward all Jewish male children were to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth, Gen.17:12.
  4. It was commanded as a part of the Mosaic Covenant, Lev.12:3.
  5. Non-Jews could not participate in the feast of Passover unless they were first circumcised, Ex.12:43,48.
  6. Moses' failure to circumcise his son almost cost him his life, Ex.4:24-26.
  7. Failure to be circumcised resulted in excommunication from Jewish society, Gen.17:14.
  8. The reversionistic Exodus Generation failed to have their sons circumcised in Egypt, Josh.5:37.
  9. Jesus Christ was circumcised on the 8th day in compliance with the Law, Lk.2:21.

Circumcision and Islam:

  In Islam, the practice of circumcision does not stem directly from the the Koran, but instead from the example of the Prophet Mohammed. It constitutes one of the rules of cleanliness of the Islamic faith. In most Islamic societies, boys are circumcised not as infants but instead between the ages of 2-14. On a social level, circumcision is considered as the religious introduction of a child into his society as well as an important step for the transition to manhood. This is also the main reason why the circumcision ceremony (which can be quite an elaborate affair depending on the financial means of the parents) is postponed until the child can appreciate the significance of the procedure.
For more information, click here.

Links To More Information about Jewish Circumcision on the Internet

  1. Comprehensive Information about the Bris procedure.
    Information about all aspects of Bris and also about other aspects about circumcision.
    Information about Brit-Mila by Rabbi Raphael Malka.

Links To More Information about Islamic Circumcision on the Internet

    Circumcision (Al-Khitaan).
    Islam: the Swiss perspective

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