On Jan. 9, Greek lawmakers voted to limit the power of Islamic courts operating in the country’s Western Thrace region, on its border with Turkey. The new law upends a system of maintaining separate legal rules for the region’s 100,000-strong Muslim minority that stretches back nearly a century. In an email interview, Effie Fokas, a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and a research associate at the London School of Economics’ Hellenic Observatory, discusses what motivated the government to pass the new law, as well as the broader experiences of religious minorities living in Greece.
WPR: What drove the Greek parliament’s decision to limit the powers of Islamic courts operating in the Western Thrace region?
Effie Fokas: The timing of the bill’s announcement made rather conspicuous the connection to a pending case against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights. On Dec. 6, the court heard the case of Chatitze Molla Sali, a Muslim woman in Western Thrace whose husband’s will bequeathed her his estate. The will, however, was contested by the deceased’s sisters on the grounds that for members of the Muslim community in Western Thrace, Islamic law, according to which two-thirds of the estate would go to the sisters, prevails over Greek civil law in matters of inheritance. Greece’s highest court ruled in the sisters’ favor that Islamic courts had jurisdiction over their inheritance.
Western Thrace exists as an anomaly in Europe given the prevalence of Shariah courts over secular courts on matters related to family law, which is a result of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey after World War I and the terms set out in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Greek government has already lost several cases in the European Court of Human Rights related to the authority of Shariah in the region and is keen to avoid further embarrassment over an issue that draws significant negative attention from its European partners.
Read the full interview here.