In a bold move that was long in coming, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced a bill that will set limits to the jurisdiction of Islamic Sharia law in the province of Western Thrace.
Greece is the only non-Muslim country in the world in which Sharia law is applied in a region of the country. Its jurisdiction covers mainly matters of family law in a region where Greece’s Muslim minority is concentrated.
Sharia was abolished in Turkey in 1926, but Ankara supports its continuation in Thrace.
Thrace’s muftis, Muslim legal experts who are empowered to give rulings on religious matters, are called upon to deliver binding rulings on family law issues, outside of the parameters of Greek civil law.
Greek civil courts must then ratify the decision, reviewing only the legality of the ruling and not the substance of the case.
According to the prime minister’s announcements while on a visit to Thrace, the new law, which is expected to be tabled in parliament within days, will state clearly that the jurisdiction of the mufti is optional.
All parties to a case must agree to accept the Mufti’s jurisdiction, otherwise the matter goes directly to a Greek civil court.
For the first time, Greek civil courts will have presumptive jurisdiction in all cases.
A presidential decree will detail the necessary civil procedure rules so that the mufti will exercise his authority within a set framework, in line with Greek and European law, so that the full rights of all litigants will be protected.
The draft legislation will state explicitly that inheritance cases in the Muslim minority are decided under the terms of Greek civil law and not Islamic, unless the litigant declares in writing that they want Islamic law to be applied.
That declaration can be revoked by the litigant at any time.
Muslim Greek citizens will now be able to draw up a binding will according to the rules of Greek civil law. In those cases, that document will be the only last will and testament that can be enforced.
A typical case of a dispute over Sharia law reached the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights last June.
In the case Molla Sali vs. Greece (application no.20452/14), a widow inherited her husband’s entire estate under the terms of a public will that he had drafted with a Greek notary under Greek civil law. The two sisters of the deceased challenged the will in Greek courts on the grounds that he belonged to the Thrace Muslim community and therefore only Sharia law applied.
The sisters’ claims were dismissed by Greek courts at first instance and appeal. But Greece’s Court of Cassation threw out the judgments, ruling that questions of inheritance within the Muslim community are decided under Islamic law.
The high court sent the case back to another division of the appellate court, which declared that only Sharia law applied and the will was null and void.
Tsipras said that the government is open to modifications of the bill before it is passed,
Because the issue pertains to religion, the public consultation on the bill has been assigned to the education ministry’s general secretary for religious affairs Yorgos Kalatzis, who has extensive experience with issues regarding the Muslim minority of Thrace.