Syria is a Muslim country with a relatively relaxed adherence to the religion compared to other Middle Eastern countries.
Before the Syrian Civil War, there was peaceful coexistence between the Muslim majority and a significant Christian population throughout the country’s cities. Since the conflict, there has been a mass exodus out of the country, especially for Syrian Christians.
There are various religious minority groups in the country, though many, namely the Jewish population, have fled due to the government’s persecution.
Read on to learn about the religious makeup of the country.
What is the Main Religion in Syria?
Though Syria considers itself a secular state, the predominant religion in Syria is Islam. Sunni Islam is the dominant religious group, followed by Shia groups and Druzes. There also Christian minority groups, such as Armenian Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox.
The Shafii and Hanafia schools of Islam are the most popular in the country. Both Sharia and civil law govern Syria’s court system. The U.S. government’s 2012 International Religious Freedom Report showed that the Syrian government targeted religious groups it deemed a threat, particularly the Sunni majority.
Adherence to religion is relatively relaxed among Syrians compared to many other countries of the Middle East. The Syrian government allows some religious freedoms and members of different religions to coexist peacefully throughout the country. Muslim practices in the country are generally more relaxed than in other Middle Eastern countries. While Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, these prayers are flexible and can be postponed.
The country’s largest religious group is Sunni Muslims, making up around 60 percent of the country’s population. Of Syria’s fourteen governorates, eleven have Sunni majority populations except for Latakia, Tartus, and Suwayda. Arab Sunnis are the largest of the Sunni Muslim communities in the country, forming most Sunni Muslims in all of Syria’s districts besides the Al-Hasakah Governorate.
The Kurds of Syria are the country’s second-largest ethnic group, at around 10 percent of the population, with most being Sunni Muslims. The majority of the Kurds live in Syrian Kurdistan, though some smaller communities are in Aleppo and Damascus. In the Hasakah Governorate, Kurds make up 60 percent of the population.
The Turkmen are Syria’s third-largest ethnic group, forming around 4 percent of the country’s population, and are predominately Sunni Muslims. They are Turkish-speaking and mainly live in the Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia, and Quenitra Governorates.
The Circassians of Syria comprise around 1.5 percent of the country’s population and are predominately Sunni Muslims.
Non-Sunni Muslims form around 16 percent of the country’s population and mostly comprise Alawites and other Shi’a groups.
The Alawites are the second-largest religious group in the country after Sunni Muslims, forming around 11 percent of the country’s population. They live almost exclusively on the Syrian coast and do not follow the Five Pillars of Islam, and remain a relatively secretive religion. It is challenging to thoroughly learn their beliefs and practices until you officially join them. The Alawites are separated into the majority traditional Alawites and the minority Murshid Alawites.
They have a controversial role in the Syrian population. The Assad family, which has been in control of the country for decades, favors the Alawites and discriminates against the Sunni majority. This has caused resentment amongst much of Syria’s Sunni population.
However, it should be noted that only a small percentage of Alawites are of Syria’s elite class, as most tend to be relatively poor and underprivileged.
It is estimated that around 1/3 of military-age Alawite men have died fighting in the Syrian Civil War. They have supported the Assad government against the Sunni Arab rebel groups.
Other Shi’a groups include the Ismailis, Twelvers, and Alevis.
Around 10 percent of Syria’s population is Christian, with an estimated 1.2 million Christians living in 2010 before the civil war. The Eastern Orthodox Church of Antioch is the largest denomination in the city. The second-largest denomination is the Melkite Catholic Church, which was created as a result of a schism within the Greek Orthodox Church, followed by the Oriental Orthodoxy churches like the Syriac Orthodox the Armenian Apostolic Church. There is also a Protestant minority in the country and some members of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church.
Damascus was one of the first regions to receive Christianity during the ministry of St Peter. At one time, there were more Christians located in the region than anywhere else in the world. With the expansion of the Islamic Umayyad empire into Syria and Anatolia, non-Muslims who didn’t convert to Islam must pay a religious tax. They were allowed to own land but were not eligible for Islamic social welfare as Muslims were.
During the late Ottoman rule, a mass wave of Christian emigration was fueled by Christian persecution. It is estimated that between 1899 and 1919, 900,000 Syrians arrived in the U.S., with more than 90 percent of them being Christian. There was another wave of Christians emigrating out of Syria in the 1960s.
The city of Aleppo has the largest number of Christians in all of Syria. Syrian Christians tend to be more urbanized, better educated, and wealthier than other religious groups.
Today’s city of Damascus still contains a significant community of Christians, with many Churches located in the city’s district of Bab Touma (The Gate of Thomas in Aramaic and Arabic). Masses are held every Sunday, and civil servants are given Sunday mornings off to attend church, even though Sunday is considered an official workday in the country. Schools in Christian-dominated areas have Saturday and Sunday as the weekend. In contrast, the official weekend of the country is Friday and Saturday.
Throughout the Syrian Civil War, Syrian Christians have been targeted by ISIS or Kurdish militias on multiple occasions, including the al-Qamishli bombings in 2015 and the Qamishli bombings in 2016. In January 2016, there was a surprise attack on Assyrian checkpoints conducted by YPG militias in Qamishlia, a predominantly Assyrian area. The attack killed one Assyrian and wounded three others.
There are many Syrian Christians that serve as public sector and private sector managers and directors. Many serve as local administrators, members of parliament, and government ministers.
There is also a significant number of Christians that are officers in the Syrian armed forces. Rather than forming their Christian units, they have preferred to mix and fight alongside their Muslim compatriots while fighting in the Arab–Israeli conflicts of the 20th century.
Syrian Christians are also known for participating in volunteer activities throughout the less developed areas of the country. Syrian Christians are generally viewed favorably by the rest of the Syrian population.
Deputy Hammouda Sabbagh, a Syriac Orthodox Christian and member of the Ba’ath Party was elected parliament speaker in September 2017.
Syrian Folk Beliefs
Beliefs in saints are widespread throughout the Syrian population. Many villages contain the shrines of proclaimed saints, which are often the gravesites of esteemed local people. Villagers visit these shrines for good fortune and protection.
These saints and shrines are often outside of religious community or doctrine, with different religions visiting the same shrine. Syrian women are often left out of many of their religions’ formal practices, so they make up for it with these unorthodox practices.
Law and Religion
Syrian Christians, Jews, and Druze follow their legal systems regarding birth status, marriage, and inheritance. All other religions must adhere to the Muslim code.
Muslims are not allowed to marry non-Muslims, though the 2016 autonomous Federation of Northern Syria began to allow civil marriage, which permitted marriage between different religious groups.
After the country gained independence from France in 1944, the Syrian government banned Jewish immigration to Palestine and put restrictions on Hebrew teaching in the country’s Jewish schools. During this period, violence and persecution against Jews grew as many Syrians called for boycotts on Jewish businesses.
In 1947 thousands of Syrian Jews illegally fled the country into Israel after Arab mobs targeted Aleppo’s Jewish population. Many Jews were killed, and the mobs destroyed shops, homes, and synagogues. The Syrian government furthered Jewish persecution by severely restricting their movement and imprisoning Jews that attempted to flee the country.
Jews were prohibited from working for the government or in banks, barred from buying property. They were not permitted to own driver’s licenses or telephones. The banks’ accounts of Jews were frozen, and their schools were closed and given to Muslims. A Jewish cemetery in Damascus was paved over with an airport road. This extreme antisemitism was reflective of Syria’s harboring of Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, who would serve as an adviser to Hafez Assad.
Damascus’s predominately Jewish area was under constant surveillance by the Syrian secret police, who would be present at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other Jewish gatherings. Travel was exceptionally difficult for Syrian Jews, as they were rarely allowed to travel abroad. If a Syrian Jew managed to travel out of Syria, they would be forced to leave behind a Syrian government bond. Family members would sometimes be used as hostages until they returned.
The U.S. government helped convince President Hafez Assad to lift some Jewish travel and property restrictions during the early 1990s. Many undercover missions designed to get Syrian Jews out of the country had taken place by then, though many were unsuccessful. In 1992 there was a mass migration out of the country, as Jews quickly took advantage of the lifted travel restrictions.
The Joab Ben Zeruiah Synagogue in Aleppo, which had been in continuous use for over 1,600 years, was deserted by 1994. In 1995 there were around 250 Jews left in all of Damascus. In 2001 an estimated 150 Jews were living Damascus, 30 residing in Haleb, and 20 living in Kamashili.
After the 1990s, the Syrian government changed its course of action, protecting the remaining synagogues and arresting assailants during anti-Israeli Palestinian protests. However, Jewish discrimination remained in Syrian society. They were not allowed to participate in the country’s political system, military, or government employment.
The Syrian Civil War has destroyed many religious holy sites, including the country’s oldest Synagogue, which was damaged during a bombing run by Bashar Al-Assad’s forces in 2014. Assad’s forces also destroyed the Umm al-Zinnar Church and the 1,400-year-old Khalid Ibn Walid Mosque.
Since the Six-Day War, the Golan Heights, which is considered a part of Syria by most of the international community, has been governed by Israel and is now populated by an Israeli Jewish majority.
It is estimated that fewer than 20 Jews are living in the country as of 2012.
Other Religious Minorities
The Syrian Druze form around 3 percent of Syria’s population, with the majority living in As-Suwayda in Southwestern Syria near Jordan’s border. The Druze have a monotheistic religion that combines the beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Druze must be born into the religion, so there are usually no conversions in or out of the religion. The Druze tend to be very secretive and prefer living in isolated communities.
Though the Druze often incorporate many philosophies of the Prophet Muhammed into their religion, most in the Druze community do not consider themselves Muslims. They don’t practice Ramadan or the Five Pillars of Islam and don’t make the Mecca pilgrimage.
The Druze have openly spoken out against the Assad regime, which has caused persecution by the government. There are significant communities of Syrian Druze that have immigrated to Latin America, especially in Venezuela.
There are around 10,000 Yazidis in the country, mainly in Jazirah and northwest of Aleppo.
We have gone over many different aspects of religious life in Syria.
Let’s go over the central ideas:
- Syria has a Sunni Muslim majority
- Syria’s Christian community makes up around 10 percent of the country’s population
- Syrians have many folk beliefs that are outside the confines of religious distinction
- There are virtually no Jews left in the country due to years of persecution
While the peaceful coexistence of Muslim and Christian Syrians may point to a shining example of religious coexistence, the treatment of religious minorities by the government has led to large waves of emigration out of the country.