Moscow - A senior Muslim cleric in Russia has prompted controversy by urging universal female genital mutilation after a rights group released a report on the practice in the country's North Caucasus region.
Mufti Ismail Berdiyev, who heads a Muslim association for the North Caucasus region, said on Wednesday that if FGM "could be applied to all women, that would be very good" in an interview with Interfax news agency.
The practice, which ranges from pricking of the clitoris to its complete removal, causes infections and loss of sensation.
The procedure has come under massive international scrutiny in recent years, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon in 2014 launching a global campaign to end it.
Berdiyev, who was decorated by President Vladimir Putin in March, said FGM does not stop women from fulfilling their ordained role of motherhood and if all women were mutilated, "there would be less fornication".
He later retracted his comments, claiming that he had been joking and Islam does not call for FGM.
A controversial Russian Orthodox cleric and blogger, the Church's former spokesperson Vsevolod Chaplin, backed Berdiyev saying that Muslims had a right to a "time-honoured tradition".
"You probably don't need to 'circumcise' all women, there's no need with Orthodox women as they don't fornicate anyway," he added.
The head of the health ministry's public health department Oleg Salagai insisted FGM is "mutilating and not positive in any way", quoted by RIA Novosti news agency.
Berdiyev spoke after rights NGO Russian Justice Group released a report on Monday on the ritual cutting of young girls' genitals in some mountain villages in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan.
The report said that in Dagestan the practice has gone "without any attention whatsoever from the authorities".
"In Dagestan, most of society is still not ready to admit that this problem exists," it said, adding that FGM has "almost total support" in certain villages where it is seen as a "compulsory ritual" to control sexual desire.
The group said it managed to talk to 25 women aged 19-70 who underwent FGM, who spoke of the pain and trauma of the operation.
Unicef figures published this year indicate that about 200 million girls in the world are subjected to genital mutilation, 44 million of whom are younger than 15-years-old.
More than half of the total figure are living in Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia, though data is incomplete in many countries.