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Syria - Religion

The country has an area of 71,498 square miles and a population of 20 million. Sunnis constitute 74 percent of the population and are present throughout the country. Other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shi'a, together constitute 13 percent. The Druze account for 3 percent of the population. Various Christian groups constitute the remaining 10 percent.

The minority Alawite sect holds an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers because President Asad and his family are Alawites. Although the government generally enforced legal and policy protections of religious freedom for most Syrians, including the Christian minority, it continued to prosecute individuals for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist groups, and other faith communities that it deemed to be extreme. The Syrian government outlaws not only Muslim extremist groups, but also Jehovah's Witnesses. In addition the government continued to monitor the activities of all organizations, including religious groups, and to discourage proselytizing, which it deemed a threat to relations among and within different faiths.

The Ottoman Empire organized the society of present-day Syria around the millet, or autonomous religious community. The non-Muslim people of the book living under Muslim occupation were called dhimmis. They paid taxes to the government and, in return, were permitted to govern themselves according to their own religious law in matters that did not concern Muslims. The religious communities were therefore able to preserve a large measure of identity and autonomy. Under the Mandate, the French continued this system, tending to favor the Christians.

In matters of personal status, such as birth, marriage, and inheritance, the Christian, Jewish, and Druze minorities follow their own legal systems. All other groups, in such matters, come under the jurisdiction of the Muslim code. Although the faiths theoretically enjoy equal legal status, to some extent Islam is favored. Despite guarantees of religious freedom, some observers maintain that the conditions of the nonMuslim minorities have been steadily deteriorating, especially since the June 1967 War. An instance of this deterioration was the nationalization of over 300 Christian schools, together with approximately 75 private Muslim schools, in the autumn of 1967. Since the early 1960s, heavy emigration of Christians has been noted;in fact, some authorities state that at least 50 percent of the 600,000 people who left during the decade ending in 1968 were Christians. Many Christians remaining in the country, fearing that they were viewed with suspicion, have attempted to demonstrate their loyalty to and solidarity with the state.

Protestant Christian denominations include Baptists and Mennonites. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is also present. There is a Yezidi population of 30,000, and there are between 100 and 200 Jews. It is difficult to obtain precise population estimates for religious groups due to Government sensitivity to sectarian strife. The Government conducts a census every 10 years, the most recent of which was in 2004. The census did not include information on religious and ethnic demographics, and there is no evidence any census specifically asked people to identify their religious affiliation.

A striking feature of religious life in Syria is the geographic distribution of the religious minorities. Most Christians live in Damascus and Aleppo, although significant numbers live in Al Hasakah Province in northeastern Syria. Nearly 90 percent of the Alawis, also known as Nusayris, live in Al Ladhiqiyah Province in the rural areas of the Jabal an Nusayriyah; they constitute over 80 percent of the rural population of the province. The Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in the southwest of the country, is more than 90 percent Druze inhabited; some 120 villages are exclusively so. The Imamis, a Shia sect, are concentrated between Homs and Aleppo; they constitute nearly 15 percent of Hamah Province. The Ismailis are concentrated in the Salamiyah region of Hamah Province; approximately 10,000 more inhabit the mountains of Al Ladhiqiyah Province. Most of the remaining Shia live in the region of Aleppo. The Jewish community is also centered in the Aleppo area, as are the Yazidis, many of whom inhabit the Jabal Siman and about half of whom live in the vicinity of Amuda in the Jazirah.

The majority of Christians adhere to the Eastern groups that have existed 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. The schisms that brought about the many sects resulted from political and doctrinal disagreements. The doctrine most commonly at issue was the nature of Christ. In 431, the Nestorians broke away because of their belief in the dual character of Christ, i.e., that he had two separate but equal natures, the human Jesus and the divine Christ. Therefore, Mary was not the mother of God but only of the man Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon, representing the mainstream of Christianity, in 451 confirmed the dual nature of Christ in one person. The Monophysites, another schismatic group, taught that Christ's divinity overpowered his humanity, resulting in a single divine nature. They were the precursors of the present-day Syrian and Armenian Orthodox churches. The Monothelites, precursors of the modern Maronites, tried to evolve a compromise by postulating that Christ had two natures, human and divine, but a single will.

The largest Christian group is the Greek Orthodox Church, also known as the Melkite church, and known in the country as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. The appellation "Greek" refers to the language of liturgy, not to the ethnic origin of the members. Arabic is also used. The Syrian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church, whose liturgy is in Syriac, split off from the main body of orthodoxy over the Monophysite heresy. The Armenian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church is the second largest Syrian Christian group. It uses an Armenian liturgy and its doctrine is Monophysite. Most citizens of Armenian descent belong to the Armenian (Apostolic) Church.

Of the Uniate churches, the oldest is the Maronite, with ties to Rome dating to the twelfth century. This group originally held to the Monothelite heresy, but in 1215 renounced it. The liturgy is in Syriac. Among the Uniate churches, the largest is the Syrian Catholic church, a Uniate offshoot of the Syrian Orthodox church, which uses the same liturgy as the Maronites and has a similar background. The Greek Catholic church is a Uniate offshoot of the Greek Orthodox and, like it, uses Greek and Arabic.

In contrast to the Uniate Chaldean Catholics who derive from the Nestorian church, the Nestorians, descendants of the ancient Nestorian schismatics, are in communion with no other church and have their own very ancient liturgy.

With the exception of the Armenians, most Christians are Arab, sharing the pride of Muslims in the Islamic-Arabic tradition and in Syria's special role in that tradition. Many Christians, particularly the Eastern Orthodox, have joined in the Arab nationalist movement and some are changing their Westernized names to Arabic ones. More Syrian Arab Christians participate in proportion to their number in political and administrative affairs than do Muslims. Especially among the young, relations between Christians and Muslims are improving. There are several social differences between Christians and Muslims. For example, Syrian Christians are more highly urbanized than Muslims;many live either in or around Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, or Latakia, and there are relatively fewer of them in the lower income groups. Proportionately more Christians than Muslims are educated beyond the primary level, and there are relatively more of them in white-collar and professional occupations. The education that Christians receive has differed in kind from that of Muslims in the sense that many more Christian children have attended Western-oriented foreign and private schools.

In addition to the beliefs taught by the organized religions, many people believe strongly in powers of good and evil and in the efficacy of local saints. The former beliefs are especially marked among the beduin, who use amulets, charms, and incantations as protective devices against the evil power of jinns (spirits) and the evil eye. Belief in saints is widespread among nonbeduin populations. Most villages contain a saint's shrine, often the grave of a local person considered to have led a particularly exemplary life. Believers, especially women, visit these shrines to pray for help, good fortune, and protection. Although the identification of the individual with his religious community is strong, belief in saints is not limited to one religious group. Persons routinely revere saints who were members of other religious communities and, in many cases, members of various faiths pray at the same shrine.

Unorthodox religious beliefs of this kind are probably more common among women than men. Because they are excluded by the social separation of the sexes from much of the formal religious life of the community, women attempt to meet their own spiritual needs through informal and unorthodox religious beliefs and practices, which are passed on from generation to generation.

Religion permeates life in all but the most sophisticated social groups. The Syrian tends to view religion instrumentally, depending on the deity and subsidiary powers to aid in times of trouble, solve problems, and assure success. The expressions bismallah (in the name of Allah) and inshallah (if Allah is willing) are commonly heard, expressing the individual's literal dependence on divine powers for his well-being.

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Page last modified: 19-12-2015 19:03:10 ZULU