ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church


Cradle of the Christian faith

Syria is a cradle of Christianity. The faith’s presence there predates Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70, the Syrian city of Antioch became the center of Christian thought in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, rivaling the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Antiochene theologians, from both the Greek and Syriac traditions, played leading roles in the Christological controversies that eventually divided the early church. These differences are now understood as cultural and linguistic, rather than strictly theological.

Modern Antioch is a city of 100,000 people in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which Turkey annexed from Syria in 1939. Nevertheless, modern Syria remains the center of the Antiochene church; the capital of Damascus is home to three patriarchs of Antioch and All the East: Orthodox Ignatius IV, Syriac Orthodox Ignatius Zakka I and Melkite Greek Catholic Gregory III.

Demographics. About 22 million people live in Syria, including 472,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and up to 1.5 million displaced Iraqis, more than a tenth of whom are Christian.

While nearly three quarters of the country is Sunni Muslim, power lies with Syria’s Alawi minority, an obscure religious group rooted in Shiite Islam that includes up to 10 percent of the Syrian population. Sunnis and Shiites consider the Alawi a non-Muslim sect. Nevertheless, the Syrian parliament passed a resolution declaring the Alawi a part of Islam. The Syrian constitution requires the president to be a Muslim, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as head of state in 2000, is an Alawi.

Christians make up a tenth of the population or two million people. About half belong to the Antiochene Orthodox Church, the preeminent Christian institution in the country. Perhaps as many as 500,000 people belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church and 125,000 belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholics number some 400,000 people and include 234,000 Melkites, 62,000 Syriacs, 51,000 Maronites, 25,000 Armenians, 12,000 Latins and 15,000 Chaldeans, though this does not include the fluctuating number of Iraqi Chaldeans seeking refuge in the country.

The rest of Syria’s population, about 5 percent, belongs to either the Druze or Shiite traditions.

Sociopolitical situation. The death of President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 removed one of the longest serving heads of state in the region and a key figure in its affairs. At first, his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, pursued some political changes as interest in reform surged. Human rights activists, as well as some parliamentarians, became more outspoken during a period referred to as the “Damascus Spring” (July 2000 to February 2001). The president also made appointments from among reform-minded technocrats.

Yet the process of political transformation remains slow: In 2001, the police arrested two reformist parliamentarians while reformist advisers have been largely marginalized.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Syrian government cooperated with U.S.-sponsored counterterrorism efforts, despite years of cool relations. However, Syria opposed the Iraq war in March 2003 and its bilateral relations with the United States deteriorated. U.S. officials accused the Syrian government of facilitating the infiltration of insurgents into Iraq — a charge denied by Syrian leaders. In February 2005, the U.S. government recalled its ambassador from Damascus after the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, which many blamed on Syrian intelligence. This led to Syria’s isolation from the international community.

Syria’s exclusion from international affairs has gradually eroded. Indirect talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, were announced in 2008 while a Qatar-brokered deal stabilizing the government in Lebanon was reached. Shortly thereafter, French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited President Assad to participate in the Euro-Mediterranean summit in Paris, spurring a growing stream of diplomatic visits to Damascus. Since January 2009, U.S. President Barak Obama’s administration has continued to review its Syria policy, and several prominent U.S. delegations have visited the country.

Economic situation. Syria is a middle-income developing country with an economy based on agriculture, industry, oil and tourism. Yet the economy faces serious challenges and impediments to growth, including a large and poorly performing public sector, declining rates of oil production, a widening non-oil deficit, wide-scale corruption, weak financial and capital markets, low rates of investment and high rates of unemployment (about 11 percent in 2008 and 8.5 percent in 2009).

While real economic growth in 2007 and 2008 showed modest gains of 5.7 and 4.3 percent respectively, it all but halted in 2009 (1.8 percent). In addition, Syria remains subject to U.S. economic sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act, which prohibits or restricts the export of most U.S. products to Syria.

Religious situation. The Constitution of Syria (1973) ensures the freedom of religion, provided that religious activities do not disturb public order. The government, however, restricts freedom of choice in religious matters. For example, the government has banned membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist and other Islamist movements and continues to outlaw Jehovah’s Witnesses.

While there is no civil law prohibiting Christian proselytization, the government discourages it and occasionally prosecutes Christian missionaries for “posing a threat to the relations among religious groups.” It also does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to Christianity. The reverse is not true. And as in most Muslim societies, a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman may marry a Muslim man.

The Civil Law for Catholics, which went into effect in 2006, provides special provisions for Catholics involving inheritance rights, jurisdiction of Catholic courts, legal marriage age, legality of mixed marriages and adoption. To date, the government has not passed legislation on personal status for Orthodox Christians. Orthodox Christians, therefore, remain subject to the personal status law for Muslims, except for marriage and divorce.

In the last decade or so, the government has also offered Christian communities land donations and expedited building permits to construct new churches, parish centers and other religious institutions, particularly in newly settled suburban areas of Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. Such support, together with tax exemptions on buildings and properties and the supply of electricity and water at no cost, has stabilized the Christian presence in the country and discouraged emigration.

Iraqi Christian refugees. The situation of Iraqi Christian refugees — Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac — remains a priority among all of Syria’s Christian leaders. The vast majority of the nation’s Iraqi Christian refugees lives in poverty. Many have suffered violence directed against them or their immediate families. Around 25 percent are considered “extremely vulnerable persons.”

An overwhelming majority finds temporary, often underpaid, part-time jobs. Some children work as well, earning little. It has been reported that abject poverty and unemployment have forced many women to work as prostitutes to support themselves and their families.

The general feeling among Syria’s Iraqi Christian refugees is that to return home is no longer a viable option. Therefore, to reduce their suffering, the acceleration of the emigration process is urged by some human rights advocates to enable refugees to resettle in new, safe and fair environments. Meanwhile, local churches and religious houses — with some funds from church associations in the West — are providing safe houses, food and basic medical supplies, as well as basic catechesis and counseling services. Resources, however, remain scarce.

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