The legal status of religious minorities: Exploring the impact of the European Court of Human Rights

Effie Fokas

Social Compass, 2017, 1-18

In the last 25 years the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has evolved into a venue where some of the most contentious questions related to religion in European society are addressed. This article focuses on the grassroots level impact of the ECtHR in the domain of legal status of religious minorities. In light of scholarly debates questioning the direct effects of courts on the issues they address (i.e., legal reform and policy change), the research on which this article is based explores the nature and extent of the Court’s indirect effects on the legal status of religious minorities: how and to what extent does the ECtHR impact upon religious minorities in terms of their conceptions of, discourse around, and mobilisations pursuing their legal status-related rights? This question is addressed through results of empirical qualitative research conducted at the grassroots level in four country cases – Greece, Italy, Romania and Turkey.

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Pushed by the European Court of Human Rights, Greece Reins in Islamic Courts

Interview with Effie Fokas –  World Politics Review, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018

On Jan. 9, Greek lawmakers voted to limit the power of Islamic courts operating in the country’s Western Thrace region, on its border with Turkey. The new law upends a system of maintaining separate legal rules for the region’s 100,000-strong Muslim minority that stretches back nearly a century. In an email interview, Effie Fokas, a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and a research associate at the London School of Economics’ Hellenic Observatory, discusses what motivated the government to pass the new law, as well as the broader experiences of religious minorities living in Greece.

WPR: What drove the Greek parliament’s decision to limit the powers of Islamic courts operating in the Western Thrace region?

Effie Fokas: 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. On Dec. 6, the court heard the case of Chatitze Molla Sali, a Muslim woman in Western Thrace whose husband’s will bequeathed her his estate. The will, however, was contested by the deceased’s sisters on the grounds that for members of the Muslim community in Western Thrace, Islamic law, according to which two-thirds of the estate would go to the sisters, prevails over Greek civil law in matters of inheritance. Greece’s highest court ruled in the sisters’ favor that Islamic courts had jurisdiction over their inheritance.

Western Thrace exists as an anomaly in Europe given the prevalence of Shariah courts over secular courts on matters related to family law, which is a result of a population exchange between Greece and Turkey after World War I and the terms set out in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Greek government has already lost several cases in the European Court of Human Rights related to the authority of Shariah in the region and is keen to avoid further embarrassment over an issue that draws significant negative attention from its European partners.

Read the full interview here.

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Religioni di minoranza tra Europa e laicità locale [Minority religions between Europe and local secularism]

Alberta Giorgi (forthcoming 2018)

Milano: Mimesis

This book concerns the place of minority religions in Italy, against the scenario of the processes that characterize contemporary societies – secularization, laicization, Europeanization, immigration – and of the tensions that they trigger or bring to light. Does the process of secularization have the same effects for the different religious communities – their internal organization, their ways of understanding and expressing the faith and the religious, how they are dealt with in the public and the political spheres? What is the configuration of secularism, in the sense of separation between religious and political institutions, in the light of the transformations of the contemporary religious?

And what is the impact of the Europeanization process? In particular, how does the redistribution of competences to supra- and sub-national governments impacts on the geometries of secularism? Does Europeanization have a secularizing effect? How the ‘religious’ dimension of immigration is dealt with, from an intersectional point of view?

These are the questions that orient the volume. In particular, specific attention is given to the complex interweaving (local, national and international) of laws, norms, regulations and jurisprudence which constitute the normative scenario of minority religions in Italy.

Drawing mainly on data collected in the framework of the ERC project “Grassrootsmobilise Directions in Religious Pluralism in Europe – Examining Grassroots Mobilisations in the Shadow of European Court of Human Rights Religious Freedom Jurisprudence” the volume is structured in five chapters.

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Journal Special Issue: European Court of Human Rights and minority religions

Religion, State and Society, 2017, 45 (3-4)

This special issue is devoted to an exploration of a disconnect between messages generated by the ECtHR through its case law and messages received at the grassroots level, in the domain of minority religious claims. Specifically, the contributions in this special issue critically assess some of the Court’s case law dealing with religious minority claims in terms of that case law’s clarity, consistency and controversiality, and they offer insight into the grassroots level impact of the Court’s case law on religious minority claims (and, specifically, claims to do with legal status).

Roughly divided, the first five contributions speak to the former matter, and the last five to the latter. And most derive from papers presented at a conference on Religion and Human Rights at the University of Padova in April 2016, organised within the International Joint PhD programme on ‘Human Rights, Society, and Multilevel Governance’. That conference allowed scholars who were working on various aspects of the work of the ECtHR to meet and interact in various sessions. Out of that interaction came the idea of developing a special issue on the work of the Court. The first five contributions are by scholars who presented independently on different panels at the latter conference, and the second batch of contributions showcase research conducted in the context of the Grassrootsmobilise Research Programme, four of which were presented on a panel on ‘Legal Status of Religious Minorities: Exploring the Impact of the European Court of Human Rights’ at the Padova conference (Fokas’ contribution was drafted subsequently).

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God’s Advocates

Effie Fokas

eds. Jeroen Temperman and András Koltay, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression: Comparative, Theoretical and Historical Reflections after the Charlie Hebdo Massacre, (2017) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 389-410

‘God’s advocates’ refers to a broad range of actors who individually and together form a support system for the existence and application of the blasphemy laws in Greece. Specifically, their aim is to purge the offences against God, Christianity, the Greek Orthodox Church, and against the religious sentiments of individuals, from the Greek public square. They are assisted in this by certain corners of the political and judicial class. This chapter describes the work of God’s advocates while presenting some of the most important cases in which the blasphemy laws have been applied in a number of fronts of Greek social and cultural life. The text then examines the subsequent political (and notably not legal) mobilization of activists and artists working both at the national and international level towards the abolishment of these laws.  Navigating between a highly active effort from amongst the ranks of the Orthodox Church and the multilevel forces in the campaign against the laws, the chapter brings to life the current volatile battle in the Greek political scene over the decriminalization of blasphemy, and offers insight into the indeterminateness of that battle’s outcome.

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Kokkinakis at the Grassroots Level

Effie Fokas

Religion & Human Rights, 2017, 12(2-3), 210-222

This contribution considers the impact of Kokkinakis at the grassroots level: to what extent do grassroots level actors know about the case of Kokkinakis and see in it an opportunity to further their own religion-related rights claims? To what extent has the case inspired social actors such as rights activists, cause lawyers or faith group members to mobilise for their own religion-related rights, whether in court, in the halls of government, or in the streets? Has Kokkinakis left a mark on the individual citizen with concerns to do with religious freedoms? These questions are addressed through empirical research conducted on the indirect effects of ECtHR religion-related case law, including Kokkinakis, at the grassroots level in Greece.

Download: Fokas – Religion & Human Rights 2017

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European Religious Freedoms Norms as a Challenge to Orthodox Churches

Effie Fokas

eds. Kristina Stoeckl, Ingeborg Gabriel and Aristotle Papanikolaou, Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity: Common Challenges – Divergent Positions, (2017) New York: Bloomsbury, 75-96

The emerging European institutional framework for religious freedom forms an important aspect of the political and societal context in which Orthodox Churches must function – regardless of the extent to which the latter are aware of this or accepting of this fact. Though this institutional framework engages states directly and less so churches, because of the close links between the two in majority Orthodox countries, the potential impact for churches is extensive. This contribution explores the European institutional framework for religious freedom, based on particular articles of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as on specific cases in the religious freedom jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights and examines the extent to which both the latter impact upon Orthodox churches in any distinct sense.

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Religious Pluralism and Education in Greece

Recent post by Dr. Effie Fokas, Principal Investigator, GRASSROOTSMOBILISE, and Dr. Margarita Markoviti, Postdoctoral Researcher, GRASSROOTSMOBILISE, in the LSE Hellenic Observatory’s blog on ‘Religious Pluralism and Education in Greece’, following their presentation on the same topic at the Hellenic Observatory on February 21, 2017:
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Comparative Susceptibility and Differential Effects on the Two European Courts: A Study of Grasstops Mobilizations around Religion

Effie Fokas

Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 2016, 5(3), 541-574

‘Grasstops mobilizations’ in the context of the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union refers to legal and political mobilization carried out by cause lawyers, NGOs, religious, secularist and humanist organizations, political figures and national governments, and by transnational networks which may develop within and between the above groups, depending on their stakes in a given issue. In the domain of religion, such grasstops mobilizations may seek to influence what religion-related issues get placed on a court’s agenda and the climate within which the Court takes its decisions on the latter; they are forces at the European and transnational levels potentially influencing the Court’s engagements with and ultimate handling of religion-related cases. This article draws on interviews carried out with various actors engaged with or impacted by mobilizations around the European courts to yield special insight into who mobilizes, for what reasons and to what effects, and into the conditions under which particular political, religious, or NGO actors are influential. Based upon the latter research as well as examination of certain structural differences between the two courts rendering them differently ‘open’ to various pressures, this contribution considers the comparative susceptibility of the two courts to such mobilizations.

Download: Fokas – OJLR 2016

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