Religion in Syria

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In Syria, Islam is not the state religion. The country is secular, which ensures equality for members of other religions. Christians can buy land and build churches. Clerics are exempt from military service and schools provide Christian and Muslim religious instruction. Syria represses Muslim fundamentalism. Christians support the government that guarantees their survival. Emigration is a serious problem for the Christian churches; at least 250,000 Christians have left Syria since 1958. Rural Christians are constantly moving to the cities because of Muslim pressure and of lack of structures.

Religous Communities of Syria

Islam

The largest religious group in Syria is Sunni Islam, of which about 80 percent 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. There are about 12 million Sunni Muslims in the main Syrian cities, about 75% of the population. They follow the full Sunna, the sayings of Mohammed as handed down by his companions, and obey the Grand Mufti, elected for life.

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 provinces in which they are not a majority: As Suwayda, where Druzes predominate, and Al Ladhiqiyah, where Alawis are a majority. In Al Hasakah, Sunnis form a majority, but most of them are Kurds rather than Arabs.

Islamic law provides direction in all aspects of life. There are four major schools of Islamic law--the Hanafi, the Hanabali, the Shafii, and the Maliki--each named after its founder and all held to be officially valid. Any Muslim may belong to any one of them, although one school usually dominates a given geographical area. The schools agree on the four recognized sources of law-- the Quran, the Sunna, the consensus of the faithful and analogy — but differ in the degree of emphasis they give to each source. Represented in Syria are the Shafii school and the more liberal 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.

Shia Muslims play only a minor role in Syrian politics. They are among the least educated religious groups, and their members are more resistant to change. In religious affairs, they look to Shia centers in Iraq, especially Karbala and An Najaf, and to Iran.

Christianity

The Christian communities of Syria, which comprise about 8 percent of the population, spring from two great traditions. Because both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were introduced by missionaries, a small number of Syrians are members of Western denominations. The vast majority, however, 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 Nestorian church. Even though each group forms a separate community, Christians nevertheless cooperate increasingly, largely because of their fear of the Muslim majority.

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; Mary was therefore the mother of a single person, mystically and simultaneously both human and divine.

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.

By the 13th century, Eastern/Greek Christianity had irrevocably separated from Western/Latin Christianity. In the following centuries, however, especially during the crusades, some offshoots of the Eastern churches accepted the authority of the pope in Rome and entered into communion with Roman Catholic Christianity. Today called the Uniate churches, they retain a distinctive language and liturgy. 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. The largest Uniate church is the Syrian Catholic church, an 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.

The largest Christian denomination in Syria is the Greek Orthodox church, also known as the Melkite church. The appellation "Greek" refers to the language of liturgy, not to the ethnic origin of the members. Arabic is also used. The Syrian Orthodox church, whose liturgy is in Syriac, split off from the main body of orthodoxy over the Monophysite controversy.

The Armenian Orthodox, or Jacobite, church is the second largest Syrian Christian group. It uses an Armenian liturgy and its doctrine is Monophysite.

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.

Druze

The doctrines of this community were first propagated in Egypt. Their mysterious beliefs are based on a variety of books including works by Aristotle and the Psalms. They believe in reincarnation and do not allow polygamy. Thus they are considered heretics by other Muslims. Persecution has forced them to take refuge in southern Syria and in the Lebanese Chouf mountains.

Judaism

Of all the religious communities the Jews, claiming 2,500 years of history in Syria, are the oldest. With the creation of the State of Israel, their numbers plummeted; in 1994 they were only 1,250, mostly in Aleppo. Government restrictions on journeys abroad were lifted only recently and Syrian Jews are now permitted to emigrate, although not to Israel. Many go to the United States.

Religious Life in Syria

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 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. 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.

Membership in a religious community is ordinarily determined by birth. Because statistics on the size of the various religious communities were unavailable in 1987, only rough estimates may be made. Muslims were estimated as constituting 85 percent of the 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 abroad. Of the Muslims, 80 to 85 percent were members of the Sunni sect, some 13 to 15 percent were Alawis, and approximately 1 percent were Ismailis; other Shia groups constituted less than 1 percent of the population.

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.

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.

Article Sources

  1. Library of Congress Country Studies: Syria
  2. L'Osservatore Romano (Vatican) Weekly Edition in English 9 May 2001

Article by Holly Hayes. Last updated: July 26, 2013.