Greece's Muslims seek reform between civil and religious laws


14 June, 2018 10:49 AM

Greece's Muslims seek reform between civil and religious laws

In January, the government passed a legal amendment allowing Muslims to opt for Greek civil law to adjudicate disputes [AP Photo]

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When he died almost a decade ago, Chatidje Molla Sali's husband willed her a comfortable widowhood: at least a million dollars' worth of rentable property in Greece's northern province of Thrace, where the couple lived, and in Istanbul, from where he hailed.

That financially secure life has so far eluded her. Molla Sali's two sisters-in-law contested the will on the grounds that, as a member of Thrace's Muslim community, their brother was bound by the precepts of Islamic law, under which they, too, should receive a share of his estate.

The Sali dispute has now escalated into a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights and prompted the Greek government to radically alter the law governing its Muslims for the first time since they found themselves outside the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Greece is the only European country to preserve a bifurcated legal system in which Islamic law coexists with Greek civil and family law.

Molla Sali was vindicated in lower court, which upheld her husband's will under the Greek civil code, but this decision was overturned in the Greek Supreme Court, which ruled the will has no legal standing and Islamic law must apply.

It ordered Molla Sali to resolve the inheritance dispute under the auspices of her local religious leader, or mufti.

Molla Sali says the decision cost her three-quarters of her inheritance. She took the matter to the ECHR in Strasbourg, arguing that Islamic law discriminates against her.

"She is a Muslim, so she is subject to [Islamic law]," Ioannis Ktistakis, her lawyer, tells Al Jazeera. "She belongs to a minority, so she has a minority judge (the mufti), which is not an advantage but a problem."

Describing his client as "the victim of multiple discriminations", Ktistakis adds: "And since she is a woman, she has a smaller inheritance because if she were a widower she would not lose her property [under Islamic law]."

The ECHR will hear Molla Sali's case in the coming months, and the consensus among both human rights groups and the government is that she will be vindicated.

But the prospect of a Grand Chamber hearing has been enough to spur the Greek government to change its laws preemptively.