Germany foreign minister has spoken out in favour of circumcision amid a growing debate about the religious practice that is dividing the country.

Attending the first rabbis' ordination ceremony in Cologne since Second World War, Guido Westerwelle dismissed a ruling by a city court that has banned circumcision.

"Religious freedom and religious traditions are protected in Germany and will continue to be protected. Whoever bars circumcisions of boys in Germany bars Jewish life in Germany," he said.

The court in Cologne ruled in June that the practice amounted to grievous bodily harm and banned it, a decision that angered both Jewish and Muslim communities. They held a joint protest march in Berlin against the decision.

Although the sentence applies only in the Cologne region, doctors around Germany have stopped the practice in fear of future legal troubles.

In the Austrian province of Vorarlberg non-therapeutic circumcision has been suspended in all hospitals and clinics pending legal clarification about its status.

The national parliament is working on legislation to overrule the Cologne decision, which for some critics has brought back uncomfortable echoes of the country's Nazi past.

"The hallmark of a free country is that it respects minorities and protects their rights," Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said.

"I ask all the countries of Europe: choose freedom, choose tolerance, choose respect, and let us be Jews here."

There are about 120,000 Jews and four million Muslims in Germany.