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Syria PDF Print E-mail
Religious Freedom Ranking:
2 out of 5 stars: Poor

Note: Syria is currently experiencing extreme levels of violence between the military and demonstrators calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad. While the constitution provides for freedom of religion, the reality on the ground remains unclear. Reports of 50 Christians being killed, and many tortured and threatened, have been made outside of the political rioting. Iraqi Christians, who have fled their country in fear of anti-Christian violence, are fearful of persecution if the Assad government falls, as the leadership of the demonstrators is Islamic with ties to Egypt where many Coptic Christians and their ancient churches are being destroyed by both the military and Islamic fundamentalists. The reality of religious freedom in the future will be determined by the outcome of the violent struggles currently on-going.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the government imposes restrictions on this right. While there is no official state religion, the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence is a principal source of legislation. The constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that religious rites “do not disturb the public order” however, the government restricts full freedom of choice on religious matters. President Assad and his family are Alawites, a prominent mystical religious sect that is a branch of Shi’a Islam; The Alawites hold an elevated political status in Syria. Its numbers in influential positions are disproportionate to those of other religious groups.  The government requires all its people to nominally affiliate with one of three groups:  Muslim, Christian or Jew, which is documented on their birth certificate and is required on legal documentation for marriage or religious pilgrimage. Recognized religious institutions and clergy receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.

Of the populations’ 21 million, 74 percent are Sunnis, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis  (the second largest branch of Shia Islam) and Shi'a in general together constitute 13 percent. The Druze–considered by Muslims to be part of Islam though with separate beliefs–account for 3 percent of the population. Various Christian groups make up the remaining 10 percent, yet some estimates say that this number has dropped to 8 percent, mostly due to migration. The majority of Christians have resided in the country since the earliest days of Christianity. The main eastern groups belong to the autonomous Orthodox churches, the Uniate churches (which recognize the Roman Catholic Pope), or the independent Nestorian Church. Protestant Christian denominations include Anglicans, Baptists, and Mennonites. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is also present.

The Yezidi (whose beliefs combine elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity) number approximately 100,000, but are not recognized by the government as being distinct from Islam. There are approximately 100 Jews in the country. Jehovah’s Witnesses are outlawed, even though some live quietly in Syria. And the government continues to prosecute persons aggressively for their alleged membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist movements.

People have the right to sue the government if they feel their rights have been violated. The government does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to other religions; conversion is outlawed in Islam but Christian converts to Islam have been accorded official recognition, although the government still regards the individual convert as Muslim and still subject to Shari'a (Islamic law). All religions and orders must register with the government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all religious and nonreligious group meetings except for worship. The time to receive registration can be lengthy.

Religious freedom and women: A Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman can marry a Muslim man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in a Muslim cemetery unless she has converted to Islam. If a person wants to convert from Christianity to Islam, the law states that the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert's diocese.

Regarding inheritance, women are usually granted half the share of inheritance that male heirs received. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to an inheritance or allowed to be buried in a Muslim cemetery unless she has converted. Male heirs must provide financial support to unmarried female relatives who inherited less.

Polygamy is legal for Muslim men, but few practice it. A caveat in the Personal Status law for Muslims stipulates that polygamy is illegal for Druze, who are otherwise covered by the personal status law for Muslims.

Religious violence: There have been occasional reports of minor tensions among religious groups, some of which were attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation. Muslim converts to Christianity were sometimes forced to leave their place of residence due to societal pressure. There were numerous arrests and convictions of individuals for promulgating "Wahabist" and "Takfiri" ideologies.

Membership in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is illegal, as is membership in any "Salafist" organization, (Saudi-inspired fundamentalism). Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death, but in practice the sentence is typically commuted to 12 years in prison. Although Hamas is a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, the government permitted the group to maintain a political presence in the country as one of several exiled Palestinian factions.


2011 U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report on Syria

Syria Country Profile BBC News

Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC)

UN Human Rights Council Report