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Greece’s parliament approves bill to make Sharia law optional for the Muslim minority

Supported by opposition, the Greek Parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of a bill that makes Sharia law optional for the Muslim minority. The legislation limits the jurisdiction of  Sharia Law in Thrace, home of a strong Muslim minority in North-Eastern of the country. Greece is the last European country to recognize the validity of the Islamic Sharia law which settles mostly family matters.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called  the vote as a “historic step” as it “extends equality before the law for all Greeks.”

The legislation allows members of the Muslim community to seek a court to solve family disputes rather than appealing to Islamic muftis, legal scholars empowered to rule over religious matters.

Greek Muslim have normally turned to muftis to solve disputes like divorce, child custody and inheritance. A practice that usually discriminated women.

Announcing the bill last November in Komotini, Thrace, Tsipras had said the legislation bill would “address the shortcomings and the inequalities effecting the minority population of the country.

He stressed that “Greek citizens who are members of the Muslim minority do not have the right to go to civil courts for personal and inheritance issues.” Tsipras had referred to Supreme Court decisions according to which members of the Muslim minority do not have the right to make inheritance wills like all other Greek citizens.

According to the legislation:

1. The mufti’s jurisdiction will be optional and subject to the agreement of all concerned parties, otherwise the case will be subject to civil courts.

2. Civil courts will have a presumption of jurisdiction

3. A presidential decree to be issued will enable the mufti to exercise his powers in a specific context that protects the rights of the parties involved.

4. Inheritance relations of members of the minority will be determined by the civil code and not by the Islamic Sharia law, however, giving the option that one decides otherwise in a written declaration.

5. All public wills to date are valid and will be implemented.

In 2015, the first woman from the Muslim minority in Thrace took her inheritance case to the European court of human rights. the 65-year-old widow challenged the Sharia law for having stripped her of her part of her inheritance.

When her husband died in March 2008, he left her all his possessions in a will certified by a Greek solicitor. His family promptly disputed the legacy, complaining to the local mufti that under sharia Muslims are not allowed to make a will.  The widow appealed to the civil courts, which endorsed her claim. But in October 2013 Greece’s supreme court ruled that matters of inheritance involving members of the Muslim minority must be settled by the mufti, as required by Sharia law.

The European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule over the case this year.

The existence of Sharia Law in Thrace was possible after the population exchange in 1923  and the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, granting the communities exceptional rights, including being allowed to live according to its existing customs. the Sharia law was abolished in Turkey in 1926, however Ankara had supported its existance in [Western] Thrace all these years.

Officially known as the Muslim Minority of Greece, it consists mainly of  Turkish-speaking people but also Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks.

Three muftis, appointed by the Greek authorities, act as religious leaders and judges. In this capacity they enforced sharia law for family disputes, but not for criminal cases. So any problems relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance were solely settled by the mufti’s office in Xanthi, Komotini or Didymoteicho, the region’s three main towns.

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