German Chancellor Angela Merkel was honored on Wednesday by the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) for her support to the German Jewish community and her outspoken denunciation of anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the European Jewish Press (EJP) reported.
The honoring took place at a special ceremony at the Great Synagogue of Brussels.
The German leader, who participated earlier in the day in an EU summit meeting of heads of state and governments, was awarded the Lord Jakobovits Prize for European Jewry.
Belgian ministers, foreign diplomats and members of the Jewish community attended the ceremony.
Speaking during the ceremony, Merkel said, "The fight against anti-Semitism is a paramount duty of a free democratic state. She called the Holocaust, the murder of six million European Jews instigated by Germany, a "break with civilization."
"Chancellor Merkel is a worthy recipient in recognition of her continuing efforts of inter-communal harmony across Europe, her friendship towards the Jewish community and outstanding contributions to the promotion of tolerance and understanding," Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, said, according to EJP.
He praised Merkel for her "principled leadership" and her decisive action during last year’s debate on circumcision when a district court in Cologne ruled that the religious circumcision of a young boy constituted an irreversible and unlawful attack on the child.
The Cologne ruling united Jewish and Muslim groups in opposition and German diplomats admitted privately that it had proved "disastrous" for Germany's international image, particularly in light of its Nazi past.
The speed with which Chancellor Merkel responded to this most urgent matter, first pledging and then delivering an agreeable solution which protected the religious practices of both the Jewish and Muslim communities in Germany, was received with relief and gratitude by faith groups in Germany, Europe and the world.
Merkel's cabinet passed a draft law to permit circumcision and clarify its legal situation. The Chancellor has clarified to Germany’s Jewish community that respecting religious rituals such as circumcision is “fundamental”.
"Chancellor Merkel’s decision to personally intervene in the debate about circumcision and to protect the rights of minority faith communities was taken in the knowledge that it may not be a popular move. It was a decision based not on opinion polls and a populist agenda, but on the deeply held conviction, that it was the right thing to do for Germany and for Europe,” Rabbi Goldschmidt said, according to EJP.
Rabbi Goldschmidt said it had not been an easy decision to award the prize to a German chancellor, but said it was the "right decision."
In her speech, Merkel stressed the right to religious freedom, referring to anti-Semitic comments that had arisen during a fierce recent debate in Germany over the Jewish and Muslim practices of circumcision.
"The fight against anti-Semitism is a paramount duty of a free democratic state," she said, adding that it was important to invest in education to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
She also mentioned her country’s friendship with Israel and said a two-state solution remains an attainable goal in the Middle East, despite all setbacks.
The Lord Jakobovits Prize for European Jewry has been awarded since 2012. Last year’s recipient was Jerzy Buzek, the former president of the European Parliament and former Polish Prime Minister.
The award is named in honor of Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, a former CER president who "advocated religious commitment with unyielding love and consideration for his fellow man."