The majority of Syria's population is Sunni Muslim (74 per cent). The country is also home to a number of other Muslim groups, including Alawites, who are a sect of Shia Islam, Ismailis and Shia. Together they constitute 13 per cent of the population. Druze account for another 3 per cent of the population, while various Christian groups make up the remaining 10 per cent. There is also a small Yezidi community of 30,000 members and between 100 and 200 Jews.
There is no official state religion. The Constitution requires, however, that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence should be a principal source of legislation (Article 3). President Bashar al-Assad and his family are Alawites while his wife is a Sunni Muslim.
Syria's Constitution protects religious freedom and guarantees religious minorities the right to hold any religious rites, provided that they do not disturb the public order (Article 35). Notwithstanding these constitutional guarantees, the government has imposed some restrictions on the freedom to worship. The government continues to outlaw Jehovah's Witnesses and forbids them from drawing attention to their activities. The government also discourages proselytizing and does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to Christianity. Interestingly, however, the government has allowed Shia missionaries to construct mosques and convert Sunnis. USCIRF 2009 noted that this type of missionary activity was not considered as proselytizing because the government does not distinguish between Islamic sects.
Religious laws continue to govern the marriages and divorces of the respective religious communities. According to USCIRF 2009, government-appointed religious judges have applied Sharia-based personal status law in a manner that discriminates against women. Syria's civil rights movements scored a minor victory, however, when, in July 2009, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers dismissed a personal status draft law proposed by religious conservatives and reversing progressive thinking on women's and children's rights. In November 2009, media reported that the draft law was returned to the Ministry of Justice and is currently under revision.
Although the government allows the various religious minority groups to worship freely, it closely monitors the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist movements. The government has been homing in on Islamist groups, since an armed attack at a Shia shrine in September 2008 left 17 people dead. In January 2009, media reported that the Syrian government began a comprehensive overhaul of its regulation of Islamic schools after it was revealed that one of the persons behind the September attack had studied at a local religious institute. The government has not yet closed any religious schools or institutes. According to Syria Today, it is, however, closely monitoring their sources of funding and has severed any ambiguous ties between charitable trusts and educational institutions.
Syria is also home to ethnic minorities, including Kurds and Palestinians. Syria's Kurds have faced discrimination for decades. According to the UN news agency IRIN, an estimated 220,000 have not been granted citizenship, thus prohibiting them from owning property and severely limiting their access to education and public sector jobs. Kurdish parties remain outlawed and the government continues to arrest individuals actively engaged in them. Government-run schools also prohibit Kurdish students from learning in their native tongue, although they are allowed to speak Kurdish in public.
Disclaimer: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.