Syria has great diversity in ethnicity and in religion. Syria is an Arab country but has a large number of Kurds. The Kurdish people are concentrated in the eastern region but they have migrated to all the major cities and have a high birth rate, higher than that of the Arabs. There is also a large number of Armenians and Assyrians. Both the Armenians and Assyrians are Christians. Syria is about 10 percent Christian. The largest group of Moslems are the Sunni. The Sunni do not hold power in Syria. Decades ago Hafez Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, seized power. Hafez Assad died and passed his rule over to his son, Bashir Assad. Bashir Assad is an eye-doctor. Originally, his brother Basel Assad was being groomed for the presidency but when Basel died in an automobile accident, Bashir became next in line of succession. Like Iraq was, Syria is a Ba'athist state. The Ba'ath party was cofounded by Michael Aflaq, a Christian. The Ba'ath party was founded in Damascus Syria. However, Michael Aflaq fled to Iraq and died and was buried there. Syria is officially a "secular" nation but the government favors and advances Islam. Syria has a close relationship with Iran and exerts strong influence in Lebanon. Languages spoken in Syria include Arabic, Kurdish, Armenian and Aramaic, which is spoken by the Assyrians and in three villages near Damascus.
To understand Syria it is imperative to understand the Alawite religion. Hafez Assad was an Alawite. Alawites are viewed with contempt by most Moslems, especially Sunnis. Alawites are viewed by Moslems as an unorthodox or heretical sect. Alawi beliefs are secret. Apparently, Alawites believe in reincarnation (as does the Druze, a similar sect) and that Ali, a descendant of Mohammed, was Allah incarnate. Only the village elders are initiated into the Alawite belief system. After Hafez Assad came to power, he found a Shiite mullah who he had issue a fatwa for him that stated that Alawites are Shiites and belong to the "Twelvers" branch of the Shiite sect of Islam. (A "fatwa" is an official statement of Islamic doctrine similar to a "papal bull" in the Roman Catholic Church.) Whatever their beliefs were, or perhaps now secretly are, they now identify themselves as Shiites and ostentatiously practice Islam. Alawites are also an ethnicity. They are a tribe of Arabs that live in the region of Latakia along the Mediterranean coast. During the French mandate they were given a favored status and were treated as a nationality and even have their own flag. Before an Alawite took power, the Alawites were widely despised, persecuted and discriminated against. Their assuming power created a Sunni backlash which erupted into a Moslem Brotherhood led revolt. This uprising was cruelly put down by the Alawite regime. In 1982 in the city of Hama, the Alawite government massacred as many as 25,000 Sunnis, men, women and children. For a short period after this mosques were closely monitored. Now the government advances extremist Islam. The Alawite sect and the Syrian government have identified themselves with Shiite Islam and works with Iran to implement Iran's foreign policy agenda. Radical anti-Semitic propaganda is flooded across the country through radio, television and posters. Children are indoctrinated in anti-Semitism in the schools. The Syrian government supports many radical Islamic terrorist organizations and terrorist training camps operate in the country with full government support. Syrian/Iranian backed terrorist organizations include Hamas and Hezbollah. Foreign insurgents are recruited from abroad and are brought into Syria, trained and smuggled across the porous border with Iraq to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The Syrian government has exerted control over Lebanon for decades. Syria does not recognize the legitimacy of Lebanon and wants to incorporate the country into Syria. President Harriri of Lebanon was assassinated by Syrian agents after pressing for greater Lebanese autonomy. It is common for Christian Lebanese leaders to be assassinated by Syrian agents, since Lebanon's Christian community is viewed as the leader of the Lebanese independence movement. Syria is not, strictly speaking, an Islamic republic, like Saudi Arabia. There are no religious police that force people to strictly observe Islam. However, the government encourages radical Islam and there are many in Syria who are radical Moslems. The Syrian government is building huge new mosques all across the country and builds mosques and settles Moslems in Christian villages. Some people incorrectly view Syria as a secular nation. It is an extremist state, although strict Islamic government (meaning Shairi law) is not enforced by the state. (This means women are not required by law to wear head coverings, although many chose to or are forced to by their families. Also, unlike Saudi Arabia there are not public amputations.) The government is aware that, as it is headed by a hated religious minority, it has serious risks to its hold on power. This explains the brutality in its crushing the Moslem Brotherhood revolt. Syria is a totalitarian police state. The Mukbharat, plain clothes secret police, are everywhere. Those who question the government disappear. They are arrested, beaten, tortured and sentenced to a gulag in the desert near the city of Palmyra. You cannot go anywhere or say anything in Syria without your actions being monitored by the government. Christian churches are of course infiltrated by government agents. In the churches the government agents discourage reading of the Old Testament and spread anti-Semitism among the Christian population. Most people live in fear. Many Syrians cooperate with the government so that they can live out their lives in peace.
The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, comprising over sixty percent of the population. While there is a small Sunni majority, Syrian society is consciously inclusive of large number of religious minorities, including, Alawis, Christians (Catholic and Orthodox), Druze, Ismailis, and even the few remaining Jews. Minority religious groups include Alawis, a heterodox Shia Muslim sect (12 percent); Christians (10 percent); Druze, a religious group located in southern Syria whose beliefs contain elements of Shia Islam, Christianity, and paganism (3 percent); and small numbers of other Muslim sects, Jews (who have tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo), and Yazidis (a small religious group whose religion contains elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christainity). The majority of Christians in Syria belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church. There are many Catholic Rite Christians and Greek Orthodox, who are called Rum, or Roman Orthodox.
Sacred Sites in Syria
Syria's historic religious sites easily rival those of its Middle Eastern neighbors Turkey and Lebanon. As a former part of the Roman Empire, a major center of early Christianity and a stronghold of Islam, Syria contains many important religious and historical sites of interest. Within the borders of modern-day Syria is the oldest continuously occupied city, the "Street Called Straight" walked by St. Paul, the best Crusader castle in the Middle East (Krak des Chevaliers), ancient desert monasteries that still receive pilgrims (such as Seidnaya), and the best preserved Roman theater (in Bosra). Other sites include the ancient Christian monastery of Mar Musa (Saint Moses the Ethiopian) and the Islamic "Crusader castle" at Aleppo. The three most important sacred sites are the Christian village of Maloula, the Ummayah Mosque and the St. Ananias church. Maloula is an Aramaic speaking Christian village with important shrines to Saint Tekla, who was a female disciple of Saint Paul. The Ummayad Mosque - one of the largest mosques in the world. It is located in the city of Damascus. The head of St. John the Baptist is kept in a shrine within the Ummayad Mosque. This mosque was a Christian church during the Byzantine period. After a Jihad, it was seized and changed to a church. St Ananias Church on the Biblical Street Called Straight in Old Damascus - place where Ananias is said to have baptized St. Paul as is described in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.
What political influence do the religious leaders have?
After the 1973 constitution was constructed, Islam was no longer declared the state religion. However, the president of Syria must still be a Muslim, while Islamic law is a major source of legislation. The president has absolute power. He doesn't share his power with any clerics. However, the government promotes the radical leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Nasrallah.
Who the religious leaders and what are the leaders titles?
In theory Sunni Muslims believe that the believer a direct access to God without the need for saints, intercessors or organized clerical hierarchy. Sunni Muslim faith does not recognize Caliphs which means "successor" or "representative" after the four Caliphs of Mohammed, and as such Sunni Muslim is therefore non-clerical. (The first four Caliphs are called "the rightly guided Caliphs.) In practice, however, Sunni Muslims are led by and informal structure of local leaders called Imams.
How are the leaders selected and trained?
Theoretically, Imams are elected yet they may be influential or important men of their communities perhaps having come to position by their influence and respect, generally being well-educated, and involved in political and social affairs. An Imam does not need to have any formal training but often religious leaders have training from Islamic seminaries such as Al-Azar in Cairo.
How many leaders are there and where are they located
Because Sunni Muslims comprise the majority of the Syrian population, Mosques may be found in all parts of Syria. Imams may therefore be found throughout the nation of Syria.
Do these religious leaders have an impact on the Armed Forces
Imams are exempt from military service. All Syrian men are required to serve in the military. The military is secular however the Syrian trains terrorists, including fanatical Moslems and those who have volunteered to become "suicide martyrs."
Syria is diverse religiously. While it is majority Sunni, the Alawite sect, which now identifies itself with Shiite Islam, is in power. The "secular" state of Syria promotes radical Islam but does not implement Islamic law. Non-Moslems are allowed to visit Mosques as long as services are not being conducted. I would recommend that American soldiers avoid entering Islamic mosques unless it is a military necessity. The only exception may be the Umayyad Mosque, which holds the head of John the Baptist. The Umayyad mosque is a historical site and is open to the public when services are not being conducted. All Syrian religious and historic sites should be treated with utmost respect. Syrian nationals may be Moslem or Christian, secular or observant. Even non-practicing Moslem take their Moslem identity very seriously. Therefore we should be very sensitive towards their religion. Chaplains should make contact with both the Moslem and Christian religious leaders.
Syrian Tolerance By David Bender- March 23 2007 New Statesman—Jun 5 2006