Syria — June 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

Since the Israelis and the Egyptians signed a peace treaty in 1979, Syria has occupied a pivotal position in the Middle East. As the leading the Arab state to challenge Israel, any comprehensive settlement of Arab-Israeli issues will require Syrian support.

The death of Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000 removed one of the longest serving heads of state in the region and a key figure in its affairs. President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, at first pursued some political reforms as interest in reform surged among intellectuals. Human rights activists and other civil society advocates, as well as some parliamentarians, became more outspoken during a period referred to as the “Damascus Spring” (July 2000-February 2001). Assad also made a series of appointments of reform-minded advisors to formal and less formal positions, and included a number of similarly oriented individuals in his cabinet.

The 2001 arrest and long-term detention of the two reformist parliamentarians and the apparent marginalization of some of the reformist advisors in the past five years indicate the pace of any political reform in Syria is likely to be much slower than hoped. Many observers now believe al-Assad remains circumscribed by powerful elites who had served under his father and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Syrian government began limited cooperation with U.S.-sponsored counterterrorism efforts. However, Syria opposed the Iraq war in March 2003, and its bilateral relations with the United States swiftly deteriorated. Syria has been accused by U.S. officials of facilitating the infiltration of anti-U.S. fighters into Iraq, a charge denied by Syrian leaders. Tensions between Syria and the United States intensified between the middle of 2004 and early 2009, primarily over issues relating to Iraq and Lebanon. The U.S. government recalled its ambassador to Syria in February 2005.

Since 2008, Syria’s isolation by the international community has gradually eroded. Indirect talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, were announced and a Qatar-brokered deal regarding 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, President Obama’s administration has continued to review Syria policy, and there has been a succession of U.S. delegations made up of congressional and administration officials who have visited Syria while in the region.

However, concerns remain that any successor regime could be led by Islamic fundamentalists who might adopt policies even more inimical to the United States, including support for organizations like Al Qaeda, which the present Syrian regime (which is controlled by an Islamic sect, the Alawi) regards as a potential threat.

Economically, Syria is a middle-income, developing country with an economy based on agriculture, industry, oil and tourism. However, the nation’s economy faces serious challenges and impediments to growth, including a large and poorly performing public sector, declining rates of oil production, widening non-oil deficit, wide-scale corruption, weak financial and capital markets, and high rates of unemployment tied to a high population growth rate. In addition, Syria currently is subject to U.S. economic sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act, which prohibits or restricts the export and re-export of most U.S. products to Syria. As a result of an inefficient and corrupt centrally planned economy, Syria has low rates of investment, and low levels of industrial and agricultural productivity.

Religious Situation

The Syrian Constitution provides freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that religious rites do not disturb the public order. However, the government continues to prosecute persons aggressively for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist movements and continues to outlaw Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The country has a population of 20 million. Sunnis constitute about three-quarters of the population and are present throughout the country. Other Islamic groups, including Alawis, Ismailis and Shiites, together constitute 13 percent. The Druze account for 3 percent of the population. Various Christian groups constitute the remaining 10 percent. The minority Alawi sect holds an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers because President Assad and his family are Alawis.

The government restricts full freedom of choice in religious matters. It does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to Christianity yet the reverse is not true. A Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman can marry a Muslim man. 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.” There were several reports that the government gave Shiites favorable treatment and allowed Shiite missionaries to construct mosques and convert Sunnis. Anecdotal reports claimed Shiite missionaries, supposedly backed by Iranian interests, provided financial incentives to individuals converting from Sunni to Shiite. The government does not consider this intra-Muslim activity as proselytization because the country makes no legal distinction between its Islamic sects.

The Civil Law for Catholics provides special provisions for Catholics involving inheritance rights, the jurisdiction of Christian courts, the legal marriage age, the legality of mixed marriages for Catholics, 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.

Christianity in Syria is ancient. While the historic Syrian city of Antioch, where followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians, is physically located within modern day Turkey, the churches of Syria remain firmly rooted in their Antiochene past. Throughout Byzantine times, and well into the era of Islam, Damascus was a center of Christian learning and scholarship. The writings of such Syriac divines as St. John of Damascus helped define the Christian faith, and are still required in seminaries throughout the world. Syrian Christians now number more than 1.8 million people.

No government-sponsored acts of religious persecution have been witnessed in Syria, and no prisoners are being held because of their Christian beliefs. Syrian identity cards do not list religion, a fact that makes Syrian Christians feel more secure than elsewhere in the Middle East. Major Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter are official national holidays. State-run television channels even run Christmas programs, and each Easter hundreds of thousands of Christians take to the streets of Damascus for joyous processions. Moreover, during the past years many Christian communities have received from the Syrian government land donations to construct new churches, schools and religious institutions in newly classified urban areas, namely Homs, Aleppo and northern Syria, in order to help the church to further strengthen the Christian presence in the country and discourage emigration.

The situation of Christian Iraqi refugees remains a priority to many church leaders. The vast majority of Syria’s Iraqi Christian refugees live in poverty. Many have suffered violence directed against them or their immediate families. Around 25 percent are considered “extremely vulnerable persons.” The overwhelming majority find temporary, usually underpaid, part-time jobs. Some children work as well, earning little.

It has been reported by a social worker that poverty and unemployment has forced many women to work as prostitutes to support themselves and their families. The general feeling of Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria is that to return home to Iraq is no longer a viable and sustainable option. Therefore, to reduce their suffering, the acceleration of the emigration process is urged to enable them to resettle in new, safe and fair environments.

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