#8 Italy – Know your rights – all three of them

By Alberta Giorgi

In our fieldwork research, we stumbled upon many groups providing an extremely useful service to the communities they are in – that is, collecting and disseminating information about laws, regulations, jurisprudence and – more broadly – what occurs in the legal and judicial fields in relation to the topics and issues they focus on. Therefore, there are many websites, forums, Facebook pages and newsletters informing those who are interested about new developments in laws and caseload, at the national, local, and international level, and the European courts. This post will offer an overview of the Italian fieldwork.

Sources can be systematized into four categories. First of all, there are the more comprehensive resources, which aggregate and organize all the possible legal and judicial sources, such as Diritto e Giustizia news (Right and Justice News), Diritto&Diritti, and INFOleges (a searchable database of laws and jurisprudence). Usually, these are resources provided by the State apparatuses, often in collaboration with universities, and/or by experts for experts – in order to keep track of all the developments in the field. Besides general resources, some websites cover more specific areas, such as the website of the Italian Data Protection Authority (Garante per la protezione dei dati personali), an independent authority set up to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in connection with the processing of personal data, and to ensure respect for individuals’ dignity. In addition to official “expert-to-expert” resources, an interesting role is played by news agencies – the economic daily newspaper Il Sole 24 ore, for example, has organized a website, Diritto24, reporting and commenting on news about laws and jurisprudence – it also offers to subscribers a weekly magazine that reviews ‘laws and jurisprudence’, including analyses of lawyers’ strategies.

The second category includes thematic resources, usually set up by scholars, on a range of different topics. In relation to the areas of interest to our project, for example, we can include websites such as OLIR – Osservatorio delle libertà ed istituzioni religiose (Observatory of religious freedoms and institutions), which collects and organizes all the legal and judicial information on religion in Italy, with specific dossiers on various topics, such as ‘ritual slaughtering’ or ‘Islam’. It also includes news, articles and comments, and a small bibliography. The website aims to engage with an audience broader than the legal experts – and indeed, it has proved extremely useful to us, especially because it systematizes the information (laws, regulations, and jurisprudence) and translates the legal jargon. Actually, this ‘expert-to-non-expert’ kind of resource is of paramount importance to have an orientation into the wild wide field of laws and rights – and I’m saying that from a non-legal-expert position. That’s why I find extremely interesting small experiments such as ‘FronteVerso’, even though it’s a non-thematic resource. FronteVerso tackles specifically the issue of the complexity of the expert language, and it issues a periodical newsletter in two columns, in which judicial rulings are reported in their original version on the right (verso) and translated in ordinary language on the left (fronte). The website claim is ‘knowing the right is a right’ – and the underlying idea is to provide a tool for improving the knowledge and awareness of ordinary citizens. In this sense, as the organizers state in their “about” section, it is an attempt to “nourish democracy”, undermining the experts’ privilege. The newsletter does not cover specific themes or topics, but it deals with high-profile cases or, more broadly, with sentences likely to impact on ordinary citizens’ lives.

Read more

#7 Romania – Picking up the white glove: juridical arguments in contentious discourse concerning the legal recognition of same-sex couples in Romania

By Mihai Popa

In a national-level survey carried out last year by a Romanian human rights NGO, 89% of respondents declared to have heard about the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR or the Court). A sober reading would interpret such data as meaning that probably 89% of Romanians either have heard of the Strasbourg Court or are embarrassed to admit otherwise. Be that as it may, it is impossible to neglect the fact that the ECtHR has been very visible in the public sphere during the last few years, and the mass media has been an important mediator of messages containing references to the ECtHR. This note begins with an illustration of how this happens. While the very likely high level of awareness about the ECtHR in the country pertains to a variety of topics in relation to which the Court has in time gained visibility (e.g. post-Communist property restitution; the living conditions of detainees in Romanian prisons), my aim in this intervention is to discuss certain trends relevant to my own field research, namely the increased engaging of human rights discourse and arguments by actors from the religious sector of Romanian civil society.

Below, I start by translating a recent heated dialogue in a debate about gay marriage aired on a national television channel on September 20, 2016. The dialogue[1] takes place between an LGBT activist, a conservative journalist who is also an Orthodox theologian, a former humanist activist who is currently a prominently pro-LGBT  Romanian MP, and an actress participating in a nation-wide social mobilization aiming to redefine marriage in the Constitution as being constituted between a man and a woman. The wider national context is one in which (1) the Constitutional Court is currently analyzing the claim of a gay couple (formed by a Romanian and a US citizen) to have their marriage contracted  in Belgium granted legal recognition in Romania; (2) 3 million signatures have been gathered at the initiative of the non-governmental Coalition for the Family in order to organize a referendum on modifying the definition of marriage in the Constitution; (3) a draft law on civil partnerships for heterosexual and same-sex couples has been rejected several times by the Romanian Parliament and is about to come up again on its agenda.

Read more

#6 Italy – Studying religious minorities and the European Court of Human Rights in Italy “in the field”: the case of Islam

By Pasquale Annicchino

Italian public authorities do not collect official statistics on the number of religious minorities and on religious affiliation in Italy. Based on several estimates, we can claim that in Italy there are currently more than one million Muslims. Of course, as a religious minority, Muslims face the same difficulties as other religious groups. These are exacerbated today by the growing climate of fear-mongering in the context of the increasing threats from terrorist groups. As we mentioned in our preliminary report on Italy, Muslims face important difficulties as they have not signed an “intesa” (agreement) with the State. I don’t want to focus here on all the legal and socio-political issues involved in the regulation of the relationship between Muslim communities and the Italian State, or on the protection of the individual right of Muslim believers to religious freedom (I would probably need a book to address these issues; those interested can read the monograph just published by Prof. Andrea Pin). Instead, I want to share with the readers of our website two recent experiences from work “in the field” that, directly or indirectly, have also informed our research.

Image 1

Picture 1: Meeting of the Council for the Relationships with Muslim Communities at the Italian Ministry of Interior

Picture 1 refers to the first meeting of the newly created Council for the Relationship with Muslim Communities at the Ministry of Interior. This is a consultative body which produces ideas useful for the Italian authorities, and especially for the Ministry of Interior, regarding how to engage Muslim communities and find legislative solutions towards guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion. I had the honour to be appointed as a member of this body by the Minister of Interior. So far it has been a great learning  experience (I hope I made some contributions as well!) in order to understand how institutions deal with the law in this field and how they frame issues related to rights and religion. The European Court of Human Rights and its decisions have been mentioned several times in our discussions. One should bear in mind that among the Members of the Council are not only lawyers but also sociologists, theologians, and political scientists. From a lawyer’s perspective it is always interesting to see how, even in the case of experts in the field, a major contribution of judicial decisions (and therefore their indirect effect) is the creation of a storytelling in particular political controversies. At this point lawyers often try to step in to maintain the legal direct effect of the decision, but I must admit that sometimes the indirect narrative effect is much deeper than the purely legal effect.

Read more

#5 Turkey – One-Day Pilgrimage to an Armenian Church in Istanbul.

By Ceren Ozgul

The seven week Lent season (Medz Bahk, in Armenian) that precedes Easter is an important time for the native Christian communities of Turkey. For my research in the context of Grassrootsmobilise, it also created a unique opportunity for me as a researcher to observe the human aspect of the legal battle (which partially took place in the ECtHR) to keep the places of worship and other properties belonging to these diminishing populations in the hands of the non-Muslim communities.

Every year, women from quietly yet densely Armenian populated neighborhoods of Istanbul come together to make a one-day pilgrimage, seven times for the seven weeks of Medz Bahk. The goal is to visit seven churches during this fasting period and attend lunchtime prayers, Arevakal, a local tradition that transforms fasting into a communal event for these women.

Armenian women gather in pre-arranged corners in their neighborhoods to wait for the small buses that will take them to the designated church of the week (The list of churches conducting Arevakal services for the Medz Bakh period is announced on the Armenian Patriarchate’s website). Early one morning last year, I joined a group of mostly middle-aged Armenian women on one such journey to attend the prayers at the Surp Asdvadzadzin Armenian Church in Eyüp as a participant observer.


Today, Eyüp is a historic and predominantly Muslim neighborhood. The neighborhood was named after a Muslim saint, Eyüp Sultan, whose nearby shrine is the most famous and revered in the city. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is also located in this neighborhood, in a small corner of this locality called Fener. Also in the vicinity, there is a high school that belongs to the Greek Orthodox community, Fener Greek Orthodox High School, which was the subject of a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) against Turkey regarding the confiscated properties of the non-Muslim minority foundations.[1]

Read more

#4 Greece – Wor(th)ship. A “Photographic fieldwork” on the World of Worship Places in Athens by Tassos Vrettos.

By Margarita Markoviti

When I first heard about Tassos Vrettos’ photographic exhibition on the worship places across Athens, though certainly intrigued, I was not expecting to see anything I had not already seen – or at least heard of – through my research on religious communities in Athens in the context of Grassrootsmobilise. As friends and colleagues were advising me not to miss this exhibition, I started to realize that there was much to be gained from a visit to the Benaki Museum, which hosted the exhibition between November 20, 2015 and January 10, 2016 (with an eventual extension till the end of January 2016).

As Vrettos told me, his interest in the topic began a few years ago when he read in the news about this beautiful Resurrection service on Easter Sunday at an Ethiopian Church. He picked up his camera, told his family “we won’t be spending Easter Sunday together this year!” and went to visit this Ethiopian Church, which was allegedly somewhere on Liosion street. It turned out that there was no such Church on Liosion, but after many exceptional circumstances, Vrettos was lucky enough to find out (with the help of a policeman who happened to pass by and who was willing to help) that the Ethiopian Church was actually in an entirely different district called Polygono. And this was the first time when Vrettos, using his discreet and soundless camera, was allowed to enter the Church in Polygono and capture instances of this service. In Vrettos’ own words:

“My entire photographic journey has been driven by a deep curiosity to see, as if I were opening a curtain and going inside. My ‘voyeuristic’ inclination was what got me started on this adventure in the first place. Looking back, I can see that my curiosity has been stigmatized by a single experience[1].”

From that moment on, he embarked upon a three-year photographic research into the worship places of Athens. Much like with his first experience with the Ethiopian Church, this research turned out to be an exploration, an ongoing journey for Vrettos to literally uncover where these places were, what they looked like and how believers organized their services and ceremonies.

Indeed, the world that Vrettos so beautifully and respectfully presents in his work has little to do with the idea of religious pluralism as we imagine it, hear about it in the news or even see it in the streets of Athens. And this is because Vrettos brings to light the many hidden communities of immigrants and refugees who, in their everyday struggle to survive and to organize their lives, also seek to create their very own places and ways of worship in the capital of Greece. And this is found in the most unimaginable places and, of course, unofficial spots across the city: from the dark basements of abandoned buildings and warehouses, which Vrettos hesitantly approached when he heard chanting coming from within, to fields and garages, including a building on the central Aiolou street, where different communities have created their own worship place on each floor. Though some of these spots, such as Churches or unofficial mosques, are visible to the public eye, residents of the areas and passersby do not even notice most of them. The discovery of this invisible complex of worship places, most of which function outside the limits set by Greek law, is exceptionally significant in the light of the ongoing struggle for the establishment of the first official mosque in Athens as well as of the recurrent public debates on the presence and rights of minority religious communities in the country.

Read more

#3 Romania – Let’s talk about religious freedom and the ECtHR. Shall we get into details?

By Mihai Popa

“Only somebody who never watches television hasn’t heard about the ECtHR”. This quotation, taken from an interview with one applicant in a case currently pending before the ECtHR, is a good starting point for this note, which contains reflections on some difficulties of approaching a research theme such as our own with persons who are not jurists, lawyers, prosecutors or judges. As the quotation above suggests, interviewees from Romania feel confident to engage in a conversation about the European Court of Human Rights. Less confident they became as we went into detail about the Court’s jurisprudence. In the paragraphs below I discuss a procedure that we as a research group devised in order to grasp whether our interviewees had a more in-depth knowledge of the ECtHR’s religion-related jurisprudence, point to some difficulties encountered, and reflect on the utility of asking persons who are not specialized in law precise questions about ECtHR cases.

Some time ago, a socio-legal scholar named Marc Galanter pointed out that courts of justice, through their decisions, not only affect those parties involved in a particular case. Courts of justice, this author said, produce ‘radiating effects’ that extend beyond the circle of litigants (Galanter 1983, see ‘Bibliography’ under ‘Output’). To put it simply, people who hear about one court decision or another are influenced in their thinking and acting by these decisions, because they can imagine what would happen to them if they were to choose the course of action taken by those in the circle of litigants to which the decision applied. In order to test Galanter’s idea of ‘radiating effects’ of court decisions in the case of the ECtHR, our research team set to find out if citizens know not only about the existence of the ECtHR but also about its decisions, as a pre-requisite step to the ‘radiating effects’ indicated by Galanter. We focused our inquiry on six cases that the research team as a whole deemed particularly suitable to such a ‘test’ of knowledge: Kokkinakis vs. Greece, Leyla Sahin vs. Turkey, Folgerø vs. Norway, Lautsi vs. Italy, Sindicatul “Pastorul cel Bun” vs. Romania, and S.A.S vs. France. With the exception of Folgerø and S.A.S., the cases we asked about arose from the countries included in our project. Given the cases’ importance in the economy of the overall jurisprudence of the Court, given that they had also been reflected in national-level mass media reports and debates (surely, some cases to a greater extent than others in each of the countries), we thought they could be known to those social actors specifically preoccupied with religious matters.

 I must say that it was not too complicated to find people without legal training who would talk to me about religious freedom and about the ECtHR within the framework of our project. I think my interviewees (representatives of religious organizations, of religious and secularist NGOs) have been generally willing to speak to me both because the topic of religious freedom is important to them and because the Strasbourg Court is quite visible nowadays in Romania. At present, it is by no means exceptional to hear that one plaintiff has won a case at the Strasbourg Court and that the Romanian state has to pay a certain fine (with public money, as the journalists usually emphasize) as just compensation. Neither is it exceptional to hear politicians prosecuted for corruption or their lawyers threatening publicly that they will seek justice at the Strasbourg Court. In this broader context of various discursive references being made to the ECtHR in the public sphere, it is understandable why I received the answer I quoted at the beginning of this note. While I have been fortunate to have a rather easy time establishing meetings with representatives of religious organizations and NGO’s interested enough in our research theme to be willing to discuss the topic with me, our analytical interest in finding out more in-depth details about individuals’ awareness of the Court and of its decisions proved rather more challenging.

Read more

#2 Greece – 19th Annual Conference of ILGA-Europe: October 28-31 2015, Athens, Greece. LGBTI Rights, Religion and the European Court of Human Rights

By Margarita Markoviti

ILGA logo

Between 28 and 31 October 2015, the 19th Annual Conference of ILGA-Europe (the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) took place in Athens, Greece, under the theme “Many Voices, One Movement – Together, mobilized for a just society”. Five members of the Grassrootsmobilise team including the principal researcher, had the opportunity to attend the gathering of LGTBI activists from around the world.

Created in 1978, ILGA is an international non-governmental umbrella organization that brings together over 400 organizations from 45 European countries. ILGA-Europe was established as a separate region of ILGA and an independent legal entity in 1996. The two main pillars of ILGA-Europe’s work are: (1) advocating for human rights and equality for LGTBI people at the European level before organizations such as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and (2) strengthening the European LGBTI movement by providing training and support to its member organizations and other LGTBI groups on advocacy, fundraising and strategic communications.

The objective of the annual conference in Athens (last year’s was held in Riga, Latvia) was to bring together activists, policy makers, representatives of institutions and other allies in order to discuss current developments across the continent, to learn and share experiences and knowledge, to strategize and to plan joint work. The local host of the conference was OLKE (Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece) – a non-governmental organization founded in Athens in 2004 with the aims to combat discrimination and protect human rights of LGBTI people in Greece.  The conference entailed a series of events: from plenary sessions and panels, which were open to all participants and included thematic discussions about the European LGBTI movement and its political work, to workshops focusing on particular topics, self-organized meetings for any groups of people who wished to meet together to discuss any subject of mutual interests and, finally, consultations – a new addition to the ILGA-Europe conference, where experts on various topics offered one-on-one consultations in their area of expertise.

Read more

#1 Italy – Torino Spiritualità

By Alberta Giorgi


Explaining Torino Spiritualità (TS) is not an easy task. It is a festival which takes place each year in Turin at the end of September: “Five days of meetings, dialogues and lectures that will help us to grow together through debates between consciences and the crossing of faiths, cultures and religions from all over the world”, reads the website. But, of course, TS extends beyond the days of the festival itself: the association ‘Amici di TS’ (Friends of TS), which now counts more than 2000 people, for example, organizes meetings, trips, and reflections during the whole year, based on the theme of the annual edition. One of the most interesting spin-offs of the Festival is the Scuola di Otium (School of Leisure), which aims to underline the importance of leisure and relaxation – the current edition focuses on ‘Mindfulness’. TS is not a Festival of Religions or religiosity, nor a Secular Festival of Philosophy or a Festival of Dialogue. It is all of the above and something more – a place for exploring the many forms of contemporary spirituality.

Let’s start from the beginning. In 2002 Gabriele Vacis and Roberto Tarasco created a play, Domande a Dio. Domande agli uomini. (Questions to God. Questions for men), performed at the Teatro Stabile of Turin. Three years later, in 2005, thanks to Antonella Parigi, at the time co-founder and director of the Holden School (a school of storytelling and performing arts based in Turin), Gabriele Vacis, Roberto Tarasco and Giorgio Vasta gathered as a Committee for the organization of a more structured Festival, with a Scientific Committee, the support of the local institutions and a number of sponsors. Thus, during its second edition, in 2005, the Festival addressed four main topics, Fondamenti e Fondamentalismi (Fundamentals and Fundamentalism), In che cosa crede chi non crede (In what does he who doesn’t believe believe?), Le nuove moralità (New moralities), and Credere e lavorare nel mondo laico (To believe and work in the secular world). The Festival included meetings, conferences, movies and performances, which took place in various locations, and invited, as speakers, writers, philosophers, scholars and representatives of various religions (among the many names were Amos Oz, Tariq Ramadan, Gianni Vattimo, Gilles Kepel, Serge Latouche and Zygmunt Bauman). The following year Parigi founded the Circolo dei Lettori (Readers’ Group) responsible for planning the Festival. Then, in 2008, the association of Friends of TS was founded. The Festival’s echo was far-reaching, and in 2014 Parigi was appointed Commissioner for the Cultural Activities (and tourism) of the Turin municipality, thus leaving the organization of the festival; the current director is Maurizia Rebola. Starting from this current 2015 edition, the students attending the courses ‘History of Religions’ and ‘Sociology of Religions’ at the University of Turin are writing a blog on the Festival (hosted by the Readers’ Group website).

Read more