Greece limits Islamic Sharia law courts for Muslim minority

Greek Parliament / Deutsche Welle

The Guardian — Greece’s Muslim minority will be able to resolve family disputes before Greek courts rather than under Islamic sharia law after the parliament on Tuesday changed a century-old legacy.

The prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, immediately called the vote an “historic step” as it “extended equality before the law to all Greeks”.

The legislation will allow Muslim litigants to go before a Greek court for divorce, child custody and inheritance matters, rather than appealing to Islamic jurists known as muftis – a system that rights groups say frequently discriminates against women.

The issue has its origins in the period after the first world war, and treaties between Greece and Turkey that followed the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

The 1920 treaty of Sevres and the 1923 treaty of Lausanne stipulated that Islamic customs and Islamic religious law would apply to thousands of Muslims who became Greek citizens.

Greece is the only EU country that has Islamic religious courts.

State-appointed clerics, known as muftis, have resolved family law matters among Muslims in Western Thrace under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Turkey and Greece following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Among other things, the treaty involved a population exchange of some 2 million people between Turkey and Greece, except for on some Aegean islands and the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul and the largely Turkish-speaking Muslim community in Western Thrace. 

The Greek Orthodox and Muslim minorities were given certain minority language, cultural and religious rights under the treaty.

But in a strange twist of history, the Muslims of Greece fell under Islamic law while Turkey moved to a secular legal system in the Turkish Republic.

The changes — considered long overdue by many Greek legal experts — follow a complaint made to the Council of Europe’s Court of Human Rights by a 67-year-old widow, Hatijah Molla Salli from Komotini, who is locked in an inheritance dispute with her late husband’s sisters.

The Muslim minority in Greece is largely Turkish-speaking. Minority areas were visited last month by Turkish President  Erdogan.

Greece’s roughly 100,000-strong Muslim minority mainly lives in Thrace, a poor, rural region in the north-east bordering Turkey.

When a Muslim woman, Sali, appealed to Greek secular justice, she initially won her case. But the Greek supreme court in 2013 ruled that only a mufti had the power to resolve Muslim inheritance rights.

“The government is only acting to prevent condemnation by the court, which, as everyone knows, is inevitable,” Salli’s lawyer Yannis Ktistakis said in November.

At the time, Tsipras said: “As a European Union nation, this does not bestow honour upon us.”

The issue is complicated by still-tense relations between traditional rivals Greece and Turkey.

Ankara takes a close interest in the Muslim community – which it sees as Turkish, although it also includes Pomaks and Roma – and frequently complains on its behalf to Athens, which considers it interference in Greece’s domestic affairs.