In Molla Sali v Greece (No. 20452/14) (which we noted briefly in April 2015) the applicant, Ms Chatitze Molla Sali, is a Greek national born in 1950 who lives in Komotini in Western Thrace. On the death of her husband, she inherited his entire estate under the terms of a will drawn up by him before a notary. His two sisters contested the will, on the grounds that their brother had belonged to the Muslim minority community in Western Thrace and that all matters relating to his estate were therefore subject to Islamic law and to the jurisdiction of the mufti rather than to the provisions of the Greek Civil Code. They relied in particular on the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which provided for Islamic customs and Islamic religious law to be applied to Greek nationals who were Muslims.
The two sisters’ claims were dismissed by the Greek courts, both at first instance and on appeal. In September 2011, the Thrace Court of Appeal held that Mr Sali’s decision, as a Greek Muslim and a member of the Thracian religious minority, was an expression of his statutory right to have his estate disposed of after his death under the same conditions as any other Greek citizen. However, the Court of Cassation vacated that judgment on the grounds that questions of inheritance within the Muslim minority should be dealt with by the mufti in accordance with the rules of sharia. It therefore remitted the case to a different bench of the Court of Appeal for fresh consideration; and on 15 December 2015, that court ruled that sharia applied to Mr Sali’s estate and that the contested will was of no legal effect.
Before the ECHR, relying on Article 6 §1 (fair hearing), taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14 (discrimination), Mrs Molla Sali complained of the application of sharia to her inheritance dispute rather than the ordinary secular law applicable to all Greek citizens, despite the fact that her husband’s will was drawn up in accordance with the provisions of the Civil Code. She alleged that she had been subjected to a difference in treatment on grounds of religion and also complained under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 (property) that, by applying sharia rather than Greek civil law to her husband’s will, the Court of Cassation had deprived her of three-quarters of her inheritance. In August 2016, the Court posed the following questions to the parties:
- Did the refusal, because of the applicant’s religion, to apply the common law applicable to all Greek citizens and instead settle the estate of her deceased husband under Muslim religious law – though the will was established according to the provisions of the Civil Code – infringe her right to a fair trial, guaranteed by Article 6§1, taken alone and in conjunction with Article 14 of the Convention?
- Did the application of Muslim religious law, on grounds of religion, to the will by which the applicant’s husband bequeathed to her the totality of his property, infringe the right of respect for property within the meaning of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1?
On 6 June 2017, the Chamber to which the case had been allocated relinquished jurisdiction in favour of the Grand Chamber. The GC heard argument on 6 December 2017 and judgment is awaited; however, according to an Associated Press report by Derek Gatopoulos and Costas Kantouris, the Greek Parliament voted on Tuesday to limit the powers of Islamic courts operating in Thrace, home about 100,000 Muslims.
The new law, which was backed by the major political parties with the exception of the extreme-Right Golden Dawn, gives the secular courts priority in all cases. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in a statement that the new law respects the “special characteristics” of Greece’s Muslim minority while redressing past injustices against members of the Muslim community “who were excluded from the legal guarantees and freedoms that all Greek citizens must enjoy.” Constantine Gavroglou, Minister of Education and Religious Affairs, welcomed opposition support for the bill. The current rules stemmed from “policies that were hostile toward the minority and sought to create second-class citizens.”
[With thanks to Daniel Hill.]