Freedom of Religion

Human Rights Court Says Mandatory Religious Education in Greek Schools Violates the Convention

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ATHENS, Greece — On October 31, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) held that mandatory religious education in Greek schools was a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (Right to Education) of the Convention, interpreted in light of Article 9 (Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion).

The applicants in this case were two sets of parents and their daughters, who live on small Greek islands. Under the Greek Constitution, religious education is compulsory for all students at primary and secondary level.

In July 2017, the applicants had requested the Supreme Administrative Court to invalidate the religious education curriculum for the 2017-18 school year, when their daughters were entering the third and fourth grades respectively. With the new school year fast approaching, the two families requested to have their case considered urgently but the court dismissed their requests.

In January 2018, arguing that the procedure for exemption from religious classes conflicted with the European Convention, the applicants lodged a complaint with the ECHR. They claimed that if they were to have their daughters exempted from religious education, they would have to state that they were not Orthodox Christians. In filing their complaint, the applicants relied on Article 9 and Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 of the Convention.

The Court found that submitting a formal declaration saying that their children were not Orthodox Christians would place an undue burden on parents. The Court reasoned that the existing system in Greece for exempting children from religious education classes could potentially reveal sensitive aspects of an applicants’ private lives. In addition, the likelihood of conflict wound probably dissuade them from seeking exemption, particularly if they lived in a small and religiously condensed society, where the risk of stigmatization was much higher than in larger cities. Lastly, no other classes were offered to exempted students, which would lead to lost hours of schooling just for their professed beliefs.

Therefore, the Court held that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, as interpreted alongside Article 9 of the Convention. The Court emphasized that the authorities did not have the right to interfere in the scope of individual conscience, to establish individuals’ religious belief or to compel them to divulge their beliefs.

Greece lags behind almost all of the member states, where such an exemption procedure, or the option of attending a class in an alternate subject are already offered. This decision by ECHR is a monumental victory for religious minorities in Greece as it acknowledges their religious beliefs, allows them to be heard and strengthens their ability to pursue a modified curriculum in schools.

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Greek System for Exempting Schoolchildren from Religious Education Classes Breaches the European Convention – 31 Oct. 2019

Law & Religion UK – Mandatory Religious Instruction Again: Papageorgiou – 31 Oct. 2019


ECHR Says Ex-Brother and Sister-in-Law Have Right to Marry in Greece

By: Mujtaba Ali Tirmizey

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

ATHENS, Greece — On September 5, 2019, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) decided that legislation preventing marriage between ex-siblings-in-law is a violation of the right to marry.

Georgios Theodorou and Sophia Tsotsorou were married in 2005, just one year after George was divorced from his previous marriage to Tsotsorou’s sister. After George and Sophia wed, Sophia’s sister complained about the union to a local prosecutor, arguing nullity on the grounds of prohibited kinship between two spouses. In 2010, the marriage was annulled by the Regional Court on the basis of Article 1357 of the Greek Civil Code, which forbids marriage between persons related by collateral descent up to the third degree. The court reasoned that since Theodorou and Tsotsorou were second-degree relatives, their marriage was barred for reasons of decency and respect for the institution of the family. Theodorou and Tsotsorou’s subsequent appeals were dismissed, and their marriage was ultimately annulled in June 2015.

In 2015, Theodorou and Tsotsorou lodged a complaint with the ECHR, citing a violation of Article 12, which proscribes the right to marry. Placing particular importance to this point, the Court noted that a consensus had developed in the marriage of ex-sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law among the member states of the Council of Europe. Only Italy and San Marino had introduced barriers to such a marriage, but these obstacles were not absolute.

The Court also noted that Theodorou and Tsotsorou had not faced any problems prior to getting married and the national authorities had not raised any objections. Tsotsorou’s sister had not complained about the marriage until approximately a year and a half later, and the prosecutor filed a formal complaint two years after the marriage. Relevant authorities only issue a marriage license after certain legal conditions have been met. Here, these authorities did not express any doubts prior to issuing this license, and for more than ten years, the couple enjoyed legal and social recognition of a married relationship and the protection provided exclusively to married couples. Lastly, the Court also observed that the Government’s arguments concerning “biological considerations” and the risk of confusion were unconvincing.

As a result, the Court held that Article 12 had been violated because the annulment of the marriage had disproportionately restricted Theodorou and Tsotsorou’s right to marry.

This decision bodes well for Italy and San Marino, the remaining members of States of the Council of Europe where such a marriage is still forbidden. Other regions of the world may also benefit from this decision, where ex-brothers and sisters-in-law’s right to marry is taboo. Lastly, a broad interpretation of this case can help other parties under Article 12 as well, which states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.”

For further information, please see:

European Court of Human Rights – Judgement Theodorou and Tsotsorou v. Greece – legislation preventing the marriage of former brothers- and sisters-in-law – 5 Sept. 2019

Law and Religion UK – Marrying a Non-Deceased Wife’s Sister? Theodorou and Tsotsorou – 5 Sept. 2019