How religious are Syrians


Legal situation on religious freedom and its actual application

In Syria in March 2011, protests that were critical of the government led to violent clashes between demonstrators and the troops of President Bashar al-Assad, which escalated into a solid civil war in the summer of that year after the opposition had become militarized. Since the intervention of regional (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and international powers (USA, Russia), the conflict in Syria has often been described as a proxy war. How many human lives it has claimed so far cannot be precisely determined; many areas in the country are inaccessible and estimates are conflicting from various quarters. A UN report from 2016 put the death toll at around 400,000.1

As a result of the war, the country's infrastructure has been largely destroyed; every second Syrian has meanwhile left his hometown and fled to a safer area of ​​the country or abroad. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center2, an international institution for monitoring conflict-related internal displacement, the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest in the world: 2.9 million people were displaced in 2017 alone. The number of Syrian refugees abroad also reached a sad record level at the end of 2015, as the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced in June 2016: With 4.9 million worldwide, Syria exceeded the second country on the UNHCR list, Afghanistan, by a good two million.

Most of the Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The Kurds make up the majority of the non-Arab ethnic groups; they also belong to Sunni Islam. Alawites, Christians and Druze complete the religious mosaic of the country. With regard to freedom of religion, the situation in Syria has deteriorated dramatically since 2011. Before the start of the war, Christians made up a not insignificant minority of the population at around 10%. Most of the Christian churches in the country are Eastern Rite churches; B. the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church. Before the war, the churches praised Syria for its atmosphere of tolerance. Since the Christians were mostly settled in areas that were particularly badly affected by the war due to their strategic importance, large numbers of them have left their hometowns and are now living as displaced persons in their own country or as refugees abroad.

President Assad is a member of the Alawites' religious community - an offshoot of Islam that many mainstream supporters disdain; It is said, for example, that many Sunnis refer to the Alawites as "heretics".3 Nonetheless, in 1974, when Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, was in power, the Shiite scholar Musa al-Sadr issued a fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) that recognized the Alawite community as a branch of Shiite Islam .

The Syrian constitution passed by referendum in 20124 (which only applies to areas controlled by the government) states in Article 3: “The religion of the President of the Republic is Islam. Islamic law is the main source of legislation. The state respects all religions and guarantees the free exercise of all rites, provided that this does not disturb public order. The legal status of religious communities is protected and respected. ”Article 8 prohibits“ the exercise of any political activity or the formation of any political party or group based on religious, denominational, tribe-specific, regional, class-based, occupational or gender discrimination , origin, race or skin color. ”Article 33 says:“ Citizens are equal in their rights and duties, without distinction between them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or belief. ” Article 42 reads: "Freedom of belief is protected in accordance with the law."

The state restricts the opportunities for proselytizing and changing religion. The conversion from Islam to another religion is generally forbidden, as this is seen as a contradiction to Sharia. Consequently, the state does not allow conversion from Islam to Christianity; however, he recognizes Christian converts to Islam. The Syrian Criminal Code criminalizes causing tension between religious communities.5 In addition, Article 462 of the Criminal Code provides for a prison sentence of up to two years for publicly denigrating religious practices.6

Matters of civil status, e.g. B. marriages and inheritances, fall under the jurisdiction of the religious community to which the citizen in question belongs. Sharia applies to Muslims; Christians and other religious minorities in the country are governed by the laws of their respective communities. There is no civil marriage. Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men; However, it is possible for Muslim men to marry women who belong to another recognized religious community.



The UN Commission of Inquiry into the Situation of Human Rights in Syria has found that most of the civilian victims and most of the prisoners are Sunni Muslims and that the Syrian government is using the blockade of parts of the country where mainly Sunni opposition members live as a weapon of war .7 In response to the government recruiting foreign Shiite fighters (including from Afghanistan and Pakistan), Sunnis attacked Shiite communities in these countries. The conflict in Syria has intensified the existing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites abroad. In some traditionally Sunni areas of Syria - e. B. Damascus, Homs, Deir ez-Zor Governorate (in the east of the country) - Shiite fighters from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon have settled with their families. It is also said that Christians in some areas of Damascus, including Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi, have been pressured to sell their houses to Iranians.8

The Ismaili and Druze communities - both minorities within Shiite Islam - are easy targets for armed groups because their populations are concentrated in specific areas. In addition, members of these communities have been pressured by the government to join the Syrian army; Men between 18 and 42 years of age who refused to do military service were arrested by the regime. As a result, most of the Ismailis and Druze of this age group have fled Syria.9

The presence of Islamist groups among the numerous opposition militias has created major problems for the minorities in the country. Such is the earlier one, for example al-Nusra-Front - which is later in Jabhat Fatah ash-shame renamed and formed an alliance with other rebel groups at the beginning of 2017 Hai’at Tahrir ash-shame united - participated in many atrocities against the Christian population during the war, including in the cities of Maalula and Sadad. Due to the complex interrelationships between different rebel groups, so-called “moderate” militias were also involved (whether consciously or unconsciously, it remains to be seen). To prevent the recapture of Sadad by Assad's troops, fought z. B. the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2013 at the side of the al-Nusra-Rebels who committed war crimes against the Christian population. In the further course of the war, various militias, including the FSA, tried to get away from it al-Nusra and to distance the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS).10

There is still no trace of many members of religious minorities who were captured by IS fighters; this also includes 25 Christians. The liberation of IS-controlled areas in 2017 revealed that some of Syria's leading Christian dignitaries also continue to be missing, including the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo Paul Yazigi, the Armenian Catholic priest Michel Kayyal, and the Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz.11

In October 2017, IS in Hama attacked a fully occupied coach with Druze on its way from Damascus to Idlib and initially took all 50 occupants hostage. Shortly afterwards, the hostages were released - except for two people who were probably murdered.12

On October 1, 2017, IS fighters retook the city of al-Qaryatain (Homs Governorate). In the three weeks that followed, until the city was liberated by Syrian government troops, the extremists executed 116 people.13 Al-Qaryatain was once home to 2,000 Christians. When ISIS first took the city in August 2015, only a few hundred Christians lived here - many had fled before the feared arrival of the extremists. During the first occupation, IS held 200 Christians hostage until they consented Jizya to pay (an Islamic tax imposed on non-Muslims); after that they were supposed to be allowed to stay in town.14

In May 2017, IS fighters attacked the predominantly Ismaili-inhabited villages of Aqarib al-Safiyah and al-Manboujah in Hama Governorate, killing 52 people.15

In 2017, the Syrian government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, recaptured large parts of the areas that had previously been controlled by the opposition. As a result, the number of violations of religious freedom decreased.

In general, however, it can be said that all armed groups committed human rights abuses in the areas they controlled during the war. In 2015, for example, the al-Nusra-Front (which at the time was still al Qaeda belonged to), the small Druze community in an area previously besieged by IS to convert to Sunni Islam. Even in 2017, the Druze were not yet able to freely practice their own religion or maintain their tradition there.16

An alliance of mostly British charities operating in Iraq and Syria published a report in January 2017 that it is crucial that Christians and other minorities receive political and security support; only in this way could they return to their homeland, rebuild their communities and initiate processes of reconciliation.17 In an interview with the Hungarian news agency BosNewsLife, the head of the Syrian Catholic Church, Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III, appealed. Younan, to the West and the United Nations to immediately lift all sanctions against his country and to end all support for the rebels: “I still hope that the Western countries, i. H. Western politicians agree to stop funding and arming the so-called rebels, otherwise the religious war will never end. "18

Acted in March 2017 Hai’at Tahrir ash-shame (formerly al-Nusra-Front) a double bomb attack in the parking lot of the Bab al-Saghir-Cemetery, which is an important pilgrimage site for Shiites. 44 people were killed, 120 others injured; most of the victims were Shiite pilgrims.19

Furthermore, rebel groups have kidnapped people to extort ransom or to force an exchange of prisoners with the government or other armed groups. By September 2017, around 100 men from the Damascus suburb of Adra al-Omaliyah - all of them from religious minorities - were still being held hostage.20

In Kurdish-controlled areas (in fact around 30% of north-east Syria), minority communities have complained about human rights violations. According to Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights (AMHR; Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights) reported non-Kurdish communities of forced demographic change in the area: Armenian and Assyrian Christians as well as Sunni Arabs were being displaced to make way for the Kurds; in addition, the Kurdish language and culture are being forced on the population in some places. In the al-Hasakah governorate there is increasing pressure on Christian private schools to adjust their curriculum if they want to avoid closure. They are supposed to teach the Kurdish language, hire Kurdish teachers and bring the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan closer to the students. The latter is the long-imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the US has classified as a terrorist organization.21

In September 2016, the so-called Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) were accused of using violence and intimidation measures against Christians in al-Hasakah. The Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Hassaké-Nisibi, Jacques Behnan Hindo, told the Catholic news agency Agenzia Fides that he believed the Kurds intended to expel the Christians and gave several specific examples. He said: “The epicenter of their attacks and acts of violence is always the neighborhood where the six Christian churches are located and where most of the Christians live. In many cases they have threatened Christians with Kalashnikovs and driven them from their homes. And once they gain access, they loot everything. "22

Representatives of Christian communities have also reported cases in which the Kurdish authorities confiscated houses that had been abandoned by their residents during the fighting. In 2017, an order was issued that such dwellings should be handed over to Kurdish families by Christians in the city of Tabqa (ar-Raqqa governorate) if their residents had not yet returned. In addition, Christians and Sunni Muslims have accused the Kurdish-dominated military alliance Democratic Forces Syria (QSD) of cooperating with the Kurdish authorities in order to marginalize, discriminate and sometimes even attack the non-Kurdish population.23

In December 2017, the news portal World Watch Monitor published an article about Christian families who have returned to the city of Homs five years after fleeing Syria and who have managed to rebuild their homes.24 Yet many other Christians have "little incentive" to return home; the Middle East is “no longer a home” for them.25 In this context, the need to create a “national accountability mechanism” was also stressed “to restore confidence in a system that ensures that all religious and ethnic communities are treated as equal citizens and are equally worthy of protection, as well as negative ones Discourages actors from actions that affect these communities. "26

A new law introduced by President Bashar al-Assad in April 2018 requires Syrian citizens to register private property with the Ministry of Local Administration within 30 days. This enables the government to confiscate the property of displaced Syrians. In this respect, the law could be seen as part of a plan to change the country's demographics by relocating Shiites from Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to formerly Sunni areas. One could also speculate that the government and its allies are pursuing a strategic interest, namely to create Shiite areas that are under their immediate sphere of influence.27

From January to March 2018, the Christian neighborhoods in Damascus were shelled from the rebel-occupied Eastern Ghouta. In church circles the suspicion has been expressed that - similar to the repeated bombings of the Christian quarter of Aleppo - the attacks were targeted. The Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, was nearly killed when a bullet struck his bedroom in the cathedral complex. He only survived because he got up to go to the bathroom just before the explosion. In Bab Touma, the seat of the Melkite patriarchate was met on the Via Recta ("straight street"), which is already mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Grenades also repeatedly struck the grounds of the convent of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary.28 In this context, Christians have criticized the fact that the losses on their part are often played down by Western media and other organizations.In a letter addressed to the World Council of Churches (WCC) on March 2, 2018 by the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, it says:

“You mention 550 fatalities in Eastern Ghouta […] But you fail to mention the hundreds of civilians - including many children - who are killed by the grenades and projectiles that come from Eastern Ghouta, and in most of them Cases are targeted at areas inhabited by Christians who belong to churches that are members of the WCC [...] It is clear from your statement that you are taking a partisan position on what is happening in Syria in general and in Damascus in particular is concerned. "


Perspectives for Religious Freedom

In general, it is not always clear in a sectarian war whether violations of religious freedom of individual people or entire communities are motivated exclusively or mainly by the perpetrators' hatred of a particular religion. In the case of Syria, ethnic-religious dividing lines have existed for centuries. Political aspects may play just as important a role as religious factors. In most cases, however, they go hand in hand, as religion and political affiliation usually overlap.

In Syria, two main groups of actors are responsible for violations of religious freedom. The first is the government of President Assad and its military allies (such as the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon or Shiite volunteers from Iraq and Iran). They are fighting together against a perceived terrorist threat and the uprising of the Sunni jihadists against the government and the Syrian state. According to some reports, government forces are deliberately targeting areas with a predominantly Sunni population.

The second group consists of non-state actors who have de facto established state-like spheres of influence. Two subgroups can be distinguished here:

The first include Sunni jihadists such as IS or the al-Nusra-Front. Even the militias of the so-called moderate opposition are in many cases driven by Sunni ideology and pursue their religious vision for the future of the country - however, as a rule, they are less extremist than the IS or al-Nusra. However, there is often tactical cooperation between the “moderates” and the jihadists - even if this means that the former thereby tacitly allow acts of genocide against religious minorities to be committed.29 The IS and the al-Nusra-Front are guilty of serious crimes against the religious freedom of Christians, Druze and Sunnis in the areas they control. But they also carried out terrorist attacks on Shiites and Alawites. The successful pushing back of IS and other extremists in many parts of the country has brought an end to the most blatant violations of religious freedom by hyper-extremist groups - crimes that can only be described as genocide against religious minorities.

The second sub-group are the predominantly Kurdish militias in northern Syria. They control areas where there are numerous ancient Christian settlements, such as B. the region around the river Chabur.

Since the Syria conflict is now in its eighth year and no political solution is in sight, it can be assumed that the humanitarian crisis and the situation of religious freedom will not improve anytime soon. In view of the atrocities committed on all sides, it will also be difficult for the different communities to live peacefully side by side again once the war is over.

In June 2018, World Watch Monitor published an article with the title (in German translation) "70,000 Syrian Armenians fled during the war and only a few will return", which gives us information about a reality that many religious minorities have to face who once called Syria their home.30

  1. “Syria death toll: UN envoy estimates 400,000 killed”, Al Jazeera, April 23, 2016, html (accessed July 13, 2018).
  2. “Syria”, Internal Displacement Monitoring Center,, (accessed July 11, 2018); “Syria Population (LIVE)”, WorldOMeters, (accessed July 11, 2018).
  3. Reuters, 'Alawites: A secretive and persecuted sect', January 31, 2012, (accessed on July 23, 2018)
  4. Syrian Arab Republic's Constitution of 2012,, (accessed July 16, 2018).
  5. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Syria”, Report on International Religious Freedom for 2017, U.S. Department of State,, (accessed July 10, 2018).
  6. Code pénal syria en application de la loi n ° 148 de 1949 (en français), Institut d'étude sur le droit et la justice dans les sociétés arabes, (accessed 10. July 2018).
  7. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, op.cit.
  8. “Syria”, 2018 Annual Report, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, (accessed July 10, 2018).
  9. Ibid.
  10. See e.g. B. “Frustration drives Arsal's FSA into ISIS ranks,” Daily Star (Lebanon), September 8, 2014, -fsa-into-isis-ranks.ashx, (accessed July 19, 2018)
  11. “Four years later, family reports 'silence' on kidnapped priest in Syria”, Crux Now, July 30, 2017, -kidnapped-priest-syria / (accessed July 14, 2018).
  12. “Syria”, 2018 Annual Report, op. Cit.
  13. “IS recaptures 'symbol of interfaith coexistence' Syrian town”, World Watch Monitor, October 6, 2017, (accessed July 11 2018); “Syria”, 2018 Annual Report, op. Cit.
  14. “Syria”, 2018 Annual Report, op. Cit.
  15. Ibid.
  16. “Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Formerly Jabhat al-Nusra)”, Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University,, (accessed July 16, 2018 ); “Syria: Situation of the Druze, including whether they are perceived to be loyal to President Assad by the insurgent groups; treatment by the authorities and the insurgent groups (January 2015-November 2015) ”, November 25, 2015, Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, index.aspx (accessed July 16, 2018).
  17. “Christians 'excluded' from Iraq's reconstruction plans”, World Watch Monitor, January 27, 2017, (accessed July 11, 2018) .
  18. Stefan J. Bos, “Syria's Catholic Leader Urges End To Western Sanctions,” Bos News Life, January 13, 2017, (accessed on July 13, 2018).
  19. “Syria”, 2018 Annual Report, op. Cit.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Archbishop Hindo: violence and intimidation of the Kurd militias on Christians increase in Hassaké”, Agenzia Fides, September 20, 2016, (accessed July 19, 2018).
  23. “Syria”, 2018 Annual Report, op. Cit.
  24. “Syria: Homs Christians return to rebuild homes and lives”, World Watch Monitor, December 5, 2017, (accessed on December 13, 2017) July 2018).
  25. “Security not only concern for Syrians returning home”, World Watch Monitor, July 4, 2017, (accessed July 13, 2018) .
  26. “National Accountability Mechanism for Iraq and Syria - Proposal for EU parliament”, World Watch Monitor - Policy Paper, June 2017, -and-Syria-Position-Paper-EU-Parliament.-FINAL.pdf (accessed on July 12, 2018).
  27. Martin Chulov, “Iran repopulates Syria with Shia Muslims to help tighten regime's control”, The Guardian, January 14, 2017, -to-increase-influence (accessed July 11, 2018).
  28. John Newton, “Bishop miraculously avoids death - as bomb lands in his bedroom,” ACN News, Jan. 12, 2018 bedroom /; John Pontifex, “When the sky turned black with bombs,” ACN News, February 21, 2018, (accessed July 19, 2018 ).
  29. As cited by John Pontifex and John Newton, z. B. the Free Syrian Army (FSA) "on the side of al-Nusra to prevent Sadad from being retaken while the jihadist group was at the same time committing war crimes against the Christian urban population." Aid to the Church in Need, Persecuted and Forgotten? Edition 2015-17, (accessed July 18, 2018)
  30. Zara Sarvarian, “70,000 Syrian Armenians have fled during the war, and few will return”, World Watch Monitor, June 27, 2018, the-war-and-few-will-return / (accessed July 11, 2018).