Religion in Syria
Membership of a religious community in Syria is ordinarily determined by birth. Based on statistical analyses from 2006, Muslims were estimated as constituting 87% to 90% (depending on whether Druze were included or not) of the total population, although their proportion was possibly greater and was certainly growing. The Muslim birthrate reportedly was higher than that of the minorities, and proportionately fewer Muslims were emigrating. Of the Syrian population, 74 to 64% were Sunnis (including Sufis), whereas 13 to 21% were Shias, either Alawites (18.0%) from which about 2% are called Mershdis and they are the followers of Sulayman al-Murshid, Twelvers (3%), or Ismailis (1%). 5% were Druze, while the remaining 10-15% were Christians. Not all of the Sunnis are Arabs. Most of the Kurds, who make up 9% of the population are officially Sunni, as are the Turkmens who encompass 1%.
A striking feature of religious life in Syria is the geographic distribution of the religious minorities. Most Christians live in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, although significant numbers live in Al-Hasakah Governorate in northeastern Syria, Tartus and Latakia. Nearly 90 percent of the Alawis live in the coastal area of the country, namely in Latakia Governorate and in Tartus Governorate in the rural areas of the Jabal an Nusayriyah; they constitute over 80 percent of the rural population of the coastal area. The Jabal al-Arab/Jabal al-Druze, 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 Twelvers Shia's are concentrated in the rural areas of Homs, in addition to two rural towns in Aleppo Governorate, plus some living in Damascus. The Ismaili Shias are concentrated between the Salamiyah region and Masyaf region in Hamah Governorate; approximately 10,000 more inhabit the mountains of Tartus Governorate in a small city called Kadmous. The Jewish community has declined dramatically in the last 20 years. Some estimates that in Damascus remained fewer than 100 Jewish people. But there are some others also in the Aleppo area, as are the Yazidis, some of whom inhabit the Jabal Sam'an and about half of whom live in the vicinity of Amuda in the Al-Jazira.
The largest religious group in Syria are the Sunni Muslims which make up around 64% of the population, of whom about 80% are native Syrian Arabs, with the remainder being Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, and Palestinians. Sunni Islam sets the religious tone for Syria and provides the country's basic values. Sunnis follow nearly all occupations, belong to all social groups and nearly every political party, and live in all parts of the country. There are only two governorates in which they are not a majority: Al-Suwayda, where Druzes predominate, and Latakia, where Alawis are a majority. In Al Hasakah, Sunnis form a majority, but most of them are Kurds rather than Arabs.
Of the four major schools of Islamic law, represented in Syria are the Shafii school and the Hanafi school, which places greater emphasis on analogical deduction and bases decisions more on precedents set in previous cases than on literal interpretation of the Quran or Sunna. After the first coup d'état in 1949, the waqfs were taken out of private religious hands and put under government control. Civil codes have greatly modified the authority of Islamic laws, and the educational role of Muslim religious leaders is declining with the gradual disappearance of kuttabs, the traditional mosque-affiliated schools. Despite civil codes introduced in the past years, Syria maintains a dual system of sharia and civil courts.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report, the government of Syria is increasingly targeting members of faith groups it deemed a threat. It is reported that the Sunni majority is primarily persecuted.
The Twelvers/Imamis, numbering about 750,000 or 3% of the population of Syria. In Damascus there are Twelvers/Imamis living near to the Shia pilgrimage sites, especially in the al-Amara-quarter which is near to Umayyad Mosque and Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque, and around Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque. An other important site is Bab Saghir Cemetery. The Shia Twelvers in Syria have close links to the Lebanese Shi'a Twelvers. Imami Shias are also found in villages in Idlib, Homs and Aleppo provinces.
Ismailis/Seveners are divided into two major groups, the Mustafians and the Nizaris. The Ismailis of Syria, numbering about 200,000 or 1% percent of the population, are predominantly Nizaris. Originally clustered in Latakia Governorate, most of the Syrian Ismailis have resettled south of Salamiyah on land granted to the Ismaili community by Abdul Hamid II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909. A few thousand Ismailis live in the mountains west of Hamah, and about 5,000 are in Latakia. The western mountain group is poor and suffers from land hunger and overpopulation—resulting in a drift toward the wealthier eastern areas as well as seasonal migration to the Salamiyah area, where many of them find employment at harvest-time. The wealthier Ismailis of Salamiyah have fertile and well-watered land and are regarded as clannish, proud, and tough.
The Alawis, numbering about 4,350,562 or 18% of the population of Syria, constitute Syria's largest religious minority. They live chiefly along the coast in Latakia Governorate, where they form over 80 percent of the rural population. For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria's most repressed and exploited minority. Most worked as indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers for Sunni landowners. However, after Alawi President Hafez Assad and his family clan came to power in 1970, the living conditions of the Alawis improved considerably. Splits by sectional rivalries - the Alawis lack a single, powerful ruling family - has led, since the 1940s, to the emergence of many individual Alawis who have attained power and prestige as military officers. Although settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.
The Druze community, at 5% of the population, continued to be the overwhelming majority in the Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in southwestern Syria. The Druze religion is a tenth-century offshoot of Shia Islam, al-Hakim, the sixth Fatimid caliph of Egypt.
The Christian communities of Syria, which account for about 12% of the population, spring from two of the three great traditions. The two traditions represented are the Roman and the Syriac Christianity. These traditions can be distinguished by what books were in their canon of the New Testament. The Roman Tradition includes those churches who existed in the Roman Empire or its satellites, or are derived from Churches that existed in the Roman Empire. These include Oriental Orthodox (Armenian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox), Eastern Orthodox (such as Greeks or Russians), Roman Catholics, various Eastern Catholic Churches that are under the authority of the Pope, and Protestants. The Syriac Tradition (or Eastern Rite) is represented by the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic and Ancient Church of the East, the members of the Syriac tradition are all Eastern Aramaic speaking ethnic Assyrians. The total number of Christians, not including Iraqi refugee Christians, numbers about 1.7 million: 1.1 million Greek Orthodox, 700,000 Syriac Orthodox, 200,000 Armenian Christians (Apostolics and Catholics), 400,000 Catholics of various rites and the Church of the East (Assyrian) and Protestants. Because Protestantism was introduced by missionaries, a small number of Syrians are members of these Western denominations. The Catholics are divided into several groups: Greek Catholics (from a schism in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch in 1724), Latin Rite, Armenian Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics and Maronites. The vast majority of Christians belong to the Eastern communions, which have existed in Syria since the earliest days of Christianity. The main Eastern groups are the autonomous Orthodox churches; the Uniate churches, which are in communion with Rome; and the independent Assyrian Church of the East. Even though each group forms a separate community, Christians nevertheless cooperate increasingly, largely because of their fear of the Muslim majority. In 1920 Syria was 25% Christian in a population of 2.5 millions. Christians have emigrated in higher numbers than Muslims and have a lower birth rate.
With the exception of the Armenians and Assyrians, most Syrian Christians are Arameans. However, many Christians, particularly the Eastern Orthodox, have joined the Arab nationalist movement and some are changing their Aramaic or Westernized names to Arabic ones. More Syrian 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 children of Christian parents have attended Western-oriented foreign and private schools.
The presence of the Christian communities is expressed also by the presence of many monasteries in several parts of the country.
Most Jews now living in the Arab world belong to communities dating back to Biblical times or originating as colonies of refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. In Syria, Jews of both origins, numbering altogether fewer than 3,000 in 1987, are found. After a mass-emigration in 1992, today fewer than 200 Jews live in Syria, mostly in the capital. Syrian Jews are Arabic-speaking and barely distinguishable from the Arabs around them. In Syria, as elsewhere, the degree to which Jews submit to the disciplines of their religion varies.
Although the Jewish community continues to exercise a certain authority over the personal status of its members, as a whole it is under considerable restriction, more because of political factors than religious ones. The economic freedom of Jews is limited, and they are under continual surveillance by the police. Their situation, although not good before the June 1967 War, has reportedly deteriorated considerably since then.
The synagogues of the Jewish community have a protected status by the Syrian government.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Yazidis, whose religion dates back to pre-Islamic times, migrated from southern Turkey and settled in their present mountainous stronghold – Jabal Sinjar in northeastern Syria and Iraq. Although some are scattered in Iran, Turkey, and the Caucasus, Iraq is the center of their religious life, the home of their amir, and the site (north of Mosul) of the tomb of their most revered saint, Shaykh Adi.
In 1964, there were about 10,000 Yazidis in Syria, primarily in the Jazirah and northwest of Aleppo; population data were not available in 1987. Once seminomadic, most Yazidis now are settled; they have no great chiefs and, although generally Kurdish-speaking, gradually are being assimilated into the surrounding Arab population.
Yazidis generally refuse to discuss their faith which, in any case, is known fully to only a few among them. The Yazidi religion has elements of Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as of paganism. Yazidis consider the Bible and the Qur'an as sacred. Sometimes inaccurately called "devil worshipers" by other Syrians, Yazidis worship a fallen angel deity symbolized as a sacred peacock called Malik Taus.
Folk spiritual beliefs
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 bedouin, 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 non-beduin 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 their 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.
1943 Syrian census
- Sunni Muslims: 1.971.053
- Alawis: 325.311
- Druzes: 87.184
- Ismailis: 28.527
- Twelfer Shia: 12.742
- Christians: 403.036
- Jews: 29.770
- Yazidis: 2.788
- TOTAL: 2.860.411
Religion and law
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 non-Muslim 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. In recent decades, however, emigration has slowed.
- "Syria - International Religious Freedom Report 2006". U.S. Department of State. 2006. Retrieved 2009-06-28.
- The CIA World Factbook. Syria. Accessed on 21 May 2014
- "International Religious Freedom Report for 2012". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 2014-04-10.
- Report: Hizbullah Training Shiite Syrians to Defend Villages against Rebels
- Marcel Stüssi MODELS OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Switzerland, the United States, and Syria by Analytical, Methodological, and Eclectic Representation, 375 ff. (Lit 2012).