European Court of Human Rights Rules Against Forcing Greek Muslim Minority to Follow Islamic Law [Molla Sali v. Greece (ECHR 2018)]

In December 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) considered the question whether Muslim citizens who lived in the Greek province of Thrace could be required to submit to the jurisdiction of Islamic law, as detailed by local experts called muftīs. In Greek law, Islamic law usually governed matters of family law—such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance—in cases involving the Muslims in Thrace. This arrangement was a legacy of the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. When the ECHR considered whether this arrangement should persist, it considered a case in which a Muslim man had died, leaving everything to his wife in his will. His sisters contested the will, arguing that it improperly circumvented the authority of the muftīs. Greece’s highest court agreed with the sisters. With the will invalidated, the muftī distributed one-fourth of the estate to the widow, and the rest to the sisters, in accord with Islamic inheritance law. The widow appealed to the ECHR. This Court determined that the Greek government had misinterpreted the treaties, which did not require a separate legal framework for Muslims. It further noted that Greek case law was inconsistent about “whether the application of Sharia law [sic] is compatible with the principle of equal treatment and with international human rights standards.” In addition, the Court emphasized a right to "free self-identification”: people should be free to opt out of differential treatment from the government on the basis of belonging to a minority group, and the government should not force minorities into a special legal category in the name of protecting them. The Court held that Greece, by compelling the Muslim minority of Thrace to follow Islamic law, had violated Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

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