Syria — June 2006

Sociopolitical Situation

Since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year, international pressure has fallen on the Syrian government. The ongoing investigation into the assassination implicated senior Syrian intelligence figures. In December 2005, a U.N. investigation accused the Syrian government of obstructing justice, intimidating witnesses and other methods of interference.

The U.N. investigation, now headed by Serge Brammertz, is expected to issue its final report in June. In April, Mr. Brammertz met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Meanwhile, former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, living in exile in Paris, has linked up with Muslim Brotherhood members to form a new party and government in exile.

The perceived political instability in Syria and the reemergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics has led to fears among Syria’s religious minorities. Sunnis make up 86 percent of the population, Christians 8.5 percent, Shiites 3.5 percent and Druze 1.7 percent. Generally, minorities have been treated well under Baath-party rule.

Syria is a poor country, its economy based on a socialist-style ideology in place since 1958. Per capita GDP was estimated at $1,190 in 2005. The country has a foreign debt of $22 billion, 105 percent of the GDP. Syria saw 3.3 percent GDP growth in 2005 and an inflation rate of 2.4 percent. There is a 20 percent unemployment rate while a quarter of the population live below the poverty line. The government is the country’s largest employer, and the state controls most major industries, such as oil refineries, electrical plants, railways, textile factories and flour mills.

Religious Situation

Of the 1.8 million Christians in Syria, the Syrian Orthodox community of 800,000 is the largest. There are some 250,000 Greek Orthodox and another 250,000 Melkite Greek Catholics. There are also 160,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians, as well as a small number of Protestants, Maronites, Armenian Catholics, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syrian Catholics and Latin Catholics.

In 1967, the state appropriated the country’s religious schools and until recently new religious schools were not allowed. However, this is changing. Recently, in northern Syria, the Syrian Orthodox built a secondary school for 1,600 students and plan to build more. In Aleppo, the Melkite Greek Catholics built a secondary school for 1,500 students, 84 percent of whom are Christian representing a number of churches. More Christian schools are expected to open in the future.

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