On 3 May the Grassrootsmobilise Research Programme hosted a public event at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, on the subject of ‘Religion and Secularism: Does the Court go too far – or not far enough?’.

Here one former judge of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR or the Court) – Judge Ann Power-Forde, and two scholars of the ECtHR – Professor Eva Brems and Professor Silvio Ferrari, responded to a series of questions asked by Effie Fokas and designed to help us critically assess the nature of the Court’s engagements with religion*. We began the discussions with a focus on Lautsi v. Italy, arguably amongst the most important ECtHR judgements in relation to religion. Here Judge Power-Forde, when asked about the normative judgement of Christianity voiced in her separate consenting opinion in the Grand Chamber judgement, explained it as a statement of fact rather than normative judgement. Professor Ferrari expressed his discontent with both the Chamber and the Grand Chamber judgements in Lautsi, finding the first too rigid and the latter too state –centric an approach, and Professor Brems discussed the large extent to which the later religion-related case of S.A.S. v France, in which she made an oral intervention to the Court in favour of S.A.S., was decided ‘in the shadow’ of Lautsi. Judge Power-Forde addressed the same question regarding the ‘shadow’ of Lautsi over the case of Fernandez Martinez v. Spain, indicating that the very close decision (9 versus 8 judges) suggests little, if any, impact of Lautsi there.

We then turned our attention to the issue of a forthcoming ECtHR case on religious education in the Greek context (Papageorgiou and others v. Greece). Professor Ferrari was asked to draw on his extensive studies of religious education and specifically of Folgero v. Norway in order to predict what might be the verdict in this case; understandably, he expressed a complete lack of certainty as to what the Court would decide but indicated his hope for an acceptance of catechetical teaching of religion where, however, exemption is allowed for any student who seeks it, and where confessional teaching of religion is also available to minority religions wherever such a demand exists. To the potential argument that the latter may lead to a ghettoization, he calls for an integration of minority faith traditions and history into the school curriculum as a whole.

Regarding the Copenhagen Declaration issued under Denmark’s presidency of the Council of Europe, wherein there is a call for increased participation of third parties in ECtHR cases, Professor Brems was asked whether this is a wholly positive development or whether it might open the Court to too much potential political pressure and thus whether some boundaries ought to be put into place. She indicated that it is, indeed, generally a positive development; that the Court needs third party input and that civil society ought to be more engaged in providing the Court with relevant insight; and that, yes, boundaries ought to be put in place by way of far greater transparency required in the intervention process.

Effie Fokas then turned the discussion to how difficult it may be for the Court, or any court, to define religion, citing examples of asylum claims which hinge on a court’s acceptance or not that a claimant’s ‘sincerely held beliefs’ deserve the protection of Article 9 (the European Convention on Human Rights article protecting religious freedom). She asked each of the speakers whether religion is particularly difficult to judge and is thus perhaps best kept out of courts and left to national legislatures, as many scholars argue. Here the response was overwhelmingly negative, with Judge Power-Forde indicating that defining religion is not actually all that difficult, Professor Brems suggesting that because most religion-related claims are minority religious claims, the ECtHR is especially important in offering minority religious protection where (majority-elected) national legislatures often fail to do so, and Professor Ferrari echoed Judge Power-Forde in arguing that defining religion is no more difficult than defining art or conscience, but that we are lacking a paradigm that helps us define religion and particularly one which distinguishes between belief and religion.

Effie Fokas then explained that in Grassrootsmobilise we define the scope of ‘religion’ rather broadly, to include issues which mobilise religious and secularist, humanist or atheist publics, such as social ethics issues (e.g., same-sex marriage), bioethics (e.g.,, abortion) and the public place of religion (e.g., majority church roles in national education systems). Judge Power-Forde was asked whether social and bioethics are areas of law where one can see rather conspicuous fault lines developing within the Court between more socially conservative and more liberal judges, to which she replied that little credence should be given to the labels ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ for the judges as they often act in defiance of these externally applied labels. What can be said, she notes, is that some judges are more interested in these questions than others and thus more likely to write separate opinions. And asked whether such fault lines tend to be horizontal or vertical, i.e., dividing Northern from Southern Europe or Eastern from Western Europe, Professor Ferrari indicated that the liberal-conservative divide is not the only divide and is probably not the most important. Rather, the picture is much more complex, with different fault lines depending on the issues that are at stake, and they sometimes intersect and they are also not static.

Finally, we took a number of highly engaging questions from the audience and ended with a lively discussion.


The programme is available here.


Please find the link to the video of the event below:

Due to technical difficulties during the beginning of the event, due to which we were unable to connect remotely with Professor Weiler, the video recording begins at minute 0:47.



* Note: Judge Christos Rozakis was unable to join us as planned due to illness on the day, and Professor Joseph Weiler joined via skype but due to technical difficulties was not able to share his responses to the questions.

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Grassrootsmobilise Conference

Between State and citizen: Religion and the European Court of Human Rights

4 May 2018 – Aegli Zappiou, Athens

On 4 May the Grassrootsmobilise Research Programme hosted a public conference at Aigli Zappeiou in Athens, on the subject of ‘Between state and citizen: Religion and the European Court of Human Rights’.

The conference entailed three rather diverse sessions designed around Grassrootsmobilise results and the questions that research raised, and a final one presenting a book on the European Court of Human Rights’ (ECtHR, or the Court) engagements with religion.

The first session showcased research results from the Grassrootsmobilise research programme. Here Effie Fokas opened the session with a brief presentation of the Grassrootsmobilise research programme’s aims and research design, followed by a paper applying cross-country comparison of the research results to reveal four main factors influencing grassroots level actors’ awareness of the Court’s religion-related case law. Ceren Ozgul and Margarita Markoviti then presented a joint paper focusing on a common point between the Turkish and Greek case studies in terms of legal status problems arising from the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. Alberta Giorgi and Pasquale Annicchino drew on the Italian case study to elaborate on how Lautsi v Italy serves as a lasting resource for majority faith reactions to certain developments in the Court’s case law. And Mihai Popa and Liviu Andreesu presented a paper (co-authored with Effie Fokas) examining the trajectory of Sindicatul Pastorul cel Bun v. Romania from a local feud to a transnational strategy in defence of religious autonomy and what this trajectory might mean both for religious freedom at the local and national level and for the ECtHR in relation to transnational culture wars at play. Marco Ventura and Julie Ringelheim, in their role as discussants for the panel, then offered their feedback on the individual papers, and on project as a whole. According to Professor Ventura, as has been noted about the ‘Lautsi’ effect on scholarly and practitioner discussions of religion and the ECtHR, so too ‘there will be a before and after Grassrootsmobilise … because of two main contributions which will make our work, after Grassrootsmobilise, completely different’. The first has to do with the relation between the specific and the general, including an emphasis on the importance of contextualisation, an understanding of the broadening of the scale in which the Court’s case law is discussed and negotiated (the ‘radiating effects’ of its case law), and insight into the role of strategies and interests in linking the specific contextual to the general international level. The second is the often extreme expectations that are placed on the Court, seen by many actors either as a panacea or a threat, whereas very rarely in reality and over time does the Court actually represent either one or the other on a given issue because – another lesson to be taken from Grassrootsmobilise – ‘when you’re dealing with law and religion, in essence you deal with the unexpected’. For her part, Professor Ringelheim began her comments with reference to an international conference she had organised on legal mobilisation where a panel of distinguished socio-legal scholars closed the conference with a discussion of three main areas where the current scholarship is lacking – all three of which gaps, Julie indicated – Grassrootsmobilise works towards filling: a need for understanding of what happens at the local level; a need to move beyond national case studies to more transnational research which also captures transnational dynamics at place; and a need for theory arising from other national (and/or international) contexts than that of the United States, which currently dominates the field. As Julie points out, Grassrootsmobilise looks carefully at what is happening at the local level and its trajectory to the international level, including the strategies of local actors, how the Court impacts on their perceptions of their rights on their mobilisations or non-mobilisation; the project also studies the case law of local courts, sometimes very obscure cases little known internationally and even nationally and yet important for the insights offered. Second, in Grassrootsmobilise the research is conducted transnationally, with case studies used to help highlight the transnational dimensions at play. And texts already published in Grassrootsmobilise highlight the limits of transfer of US theory to European contexts; here she welcomed even greater elaboration, with an expectation that Grassrootsmobilise can indeed generate much needed theory which will broaden the field from its current North American base.

In the second session, interview-type questions were asked by doctoral student Ms. Lisa Harms of legal practitioners regarding their own experiences of the ECtHR, Here Panos Bitsaxis, who defended Minos Kokkinakis in that watershed ECtHR case on religious freedom (Kokkinakis v. Greece, 1993), was asked to assess the overall importance of the rich body of Jehovah’s Witnesses ECtHR case law for the religious freedoms developments at the Court.  Against the backdrop of all the attention received by the case of Lautsi, the co-founder and spokesperson of Greek Helsinki Monitor Panayote Dimitras (who also intervened in both the chamber and Grand Chamber Lautsi cases) was asked to speak about the impact of a series of other successes at the ECtHR for secularist claims – namely, Dimitras and Others v. Greece nos 1, 2 and 3, on the religious oath in Greek courts. Yannis Ktistakis, who defended Molla Sali in an ongoing ECtHR case against Greece regarding the prevalence of sharia law over Greek civil law in the region of Western Thrace, was asked to comment on how well prepared the ECtHR is to tackle questions of legal pluralism. And finally, Roger Kiska*. Legal counsel for Christian Concern, was asked to discuss Christian Concern’s intervention in the case of Molla Sali v. Greece.

The third roundtable asked a combination of legal practitioners and scholars to address several questions designed to help us understand whether and the extent to which we really need the ECtHR for the protection of religious freedom, given certain challenges in the ECtHR context and also the availability of other possibilities for religious freedoms protection. Here Brett Scharffs engaged with the question of whether and the extent to which Article 9 specifically of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is necessary for the protection of religious freedom or whether the latter could instead be protected by a combination and reinterpretation of other rights. Lucy Vickers, who has written extensively on ECHR Article 14 on non-discrimination, was asked how effectively religious freedom can be protected by the Court of Justice of the European Union in its handling of anti-discrimination cases. Malcolm Evans was asked to draw on his United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) experience to tell us whether we can rely sufficiently well on the UNHRC instead.  Nicos Alivizatos explored the question of whether we can rely on national constitutional courts instead, particularly given the context of ‘new’ or renewed nationalisms which challenge the ability of the Court to maintain legitimacy in the face of complaints that it threatens national sovereignty. Renata Uitz offered her view on how effective the Court has been in defending the rights of LGBT individuals from religion). Paul Diamond* *gave us his assessment of whether the Court has done more to protect the rights of the religious or more to impinge on religious sensibilities. And finally, Ronan McCrea considered whether in the post-Brighton Process, post-Lautsi and post-introduction of Protocol 15, there has been a substantially new emphasis on the Margin of Appreciation which, in its liberal application in religion-related cases, undermines the Court’s protection of the freedom of conscience.

These sessions were followed by session marking the (near) publication of The Kokkinakis Papers: Taking Stock of 25 Years of ECtHR Jurisprudence on Freedom of Religion or Belief, co-edited by Jeroen Temperman, Malcolm Evans and Jeremy Gunn (notably, not a product of the Grassrootsmobilise project, though Effie Fokas and Dia Anagnostou have both contributed Grassrootsmobilise-based chapters to it). Here Jeremy Gunn offered a critical perspective on the Court’s 25-year trajectory in religion cases, focusing especially on the need to strengthen the effectiveness of the Court in the context of new (and old) nationalisms. Ahmed Shaheed then considered, in comparative perspective, the effectiveness of the ECtHR and other international institutions protecting the freedom of religion.  Finally, the session closed with Silvio Ferrari’s rather poetic presentation of the ‘non-existent’ Kokkinakis Papers book, engaging in-depth however with certain aspects of the draft at his disposal to emphasise how vital such stock-taking of the Court’s handling of religion is and calling on both scholars and practitioners to remain vigilant in calling the Court to task where necessary.

The conference was attended by approximately 90 scholars, legal practitioners, and students.

Please listen here for a recording of session 1 of the conference.

Listen here for session 2.

Listen here for session 3.

Listen here for session 4.


The programme is available here.


* Roger Kiska kindly stood in for Andrea Williams who was unable to attend due to a pressing case for the organisation which she represents.

** Paul Diamond kindly took the place of Gregor Puppinck at the Roundtable, as the latter was also unable to attend due to a pressing case for the European Centre for Law and Justice.



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Rights Consciousness and Legal Cultures: Theoretical Perspectives

25 April 2018

Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies, Research Group for Interdisciplinary Legal Studies – Budapest, Hungary

On 25 April 2018 Mihai Popa, Grassrootsmobilise researcher, participated in the International Workshop ‘Rights Consciousness and Legal Cultures: Theoretical Perspectives’ which was organised by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies, Research Group for Interdisciplinary Legal Studies in Budapest. His presentation was entitled ‘From court to television: Legal mobilization and the ‘shadow’ of the European Court of Human Rights in the Romanian public sphere’.

The workshop programme is available here.

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The Use of Law by Social Movements and Civil Society

22-23 March 2018


Margarita Markoviti recently presented on ‘The Radiating Effect of the European Court of Human Rights on Social Movements: LGBT Rights, Strategic Litigation and Counter-Mobilizations in Greece’, based on her Grassrootsmobilise research, at the international and interdisciplinary symposium ‘The Use of Law by Social Movements and Civil Society’, which took place in Brussels on 22 and 23 March.

The symposium’s programme is available here.

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Timisoara Conference of Political Science 2018

22-23 March 2018

West University of Timișoara, Romania

On 22 March 2018 Grassrootsmobilise researcher Mihai Popa participated in the panel on ‘Social Movements and Organizations’ at the Timișoara Conference of Political Science 2018, which was held at the West University of Timișoara in Timișoara, Romania. He presented on ‘Mobilizing to define “marriage” in the Constitution: Evolving transnational cooperation in the religious sector of Romanian civil society’, drawing on his interview research with activists from the religious sector of Romanian civil society, on public position-takings presented in the mass media or expressed in open letters by pro-family activists, as well as on amicus curiae briefs submitted by the same actors to the Constitutional Court, to show that religious activists from Romania have established in the past years stable relations of cooperation with transnational Christian conservative activists and that, partly as a result of this cooperation, legal expertise and arguments grounded in international legal instruments have become very prominent in the latest mobilization to define “marriage” in the Romanian Constitution.

Further information about the conference is available here.

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Too Little, Too Late for Religious Freedom in Greece?

Blog post by Effie Fokas, Principal Investigator for GRASSROOTSMOBILISE, on the issue of religious education in Greek public schools, for the Public Orthodoxy blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, May 10, 2018.

The Western Thrace region of Greece exists as an anomaly in Europe for the prevalence of sharia courts over secular courts on matters related to family law. This anomaly is left over from a population exchange between Greece and Turkey and the terms set out in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The governance of sharia in the region (specifically, for interference in the selection of Muftis) has been the subject of several cases against the state of Greece in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), cases in which the Greek state was found to be violating the claimants’ freedom of religion.

Unsurprisingly, the Greek state is keen to avoid further shaming over an issue that already draws significant negative attention from its European partners. In November of 2017, the Greek government announced a bill to limit the powers of Islamic sharia courts operating in Western Thrace. 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: in December of 2017 the ECtHR was due to hear (and did in fact hear) the case of Molla Sali v. Greece, in which a woman claimed that the application of sharia law over her husband’s civil law will for his estate entailed discrimination on the basis of religion (inheritance issues of non-Muslim Greeks are, of course, dealt with solely under civil law). Under sharia law, 2/3rds of the estate would go to the sisters of the deceased instead of the full estate being bequeathed to Molla Sali, as was set out in her husband’s civil law will. Here the government’s move was one case of too little too late, with Greek law falling short of and trailing behind, time-wise, developments within the ECtHR: the new law will not save the Greek state from a further violation found (the judgment is still pending), and most importantly, it still leaves the sharia courts in place.

Read the full post here.


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