Prior to the conflict that began in 2011, the population of Syria was estimated at about 23 million. The population is ethnically and religiously diverse. About 74% of Syrians are Sunni Muslim (including Arabs and Kurds). About 13% are Alawite and other Muslim groups, 3% Druze and about 10% Christian. Recognised churches include the Greek Orthodox church, the Syrian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches, the Greek, Armenian, Chaldean, Roman, Maronite and Syrian Catholic Churches, the Syriac Church of the East, and the Presbyterian, Baptist, Alliance and Nazarene Churches. The massive displacement of Syrians within and outside Syria caused by the conflict has affected all religious communities. While Christians have been particularly affected in some areas (such as those under the control of extremist groups), overall there is little evidence that the displacement of Christians has been disproportionate compared with other communities.
The Syrian Constitution of 2012 specifies that the President must be a Muslim and establishes Islamic law as a major source of legislation. It affirms the principle of non-discrimination, including on the basis of religion, and obligates the State to respect all religions and to ensure that freedom to perform religious rites is protected, subject to public order considerations. Recognised religious communities have jurisdiction over personal status matters. By law, religious organisations must register and are closely monitored by the Government; recognised groups, including churches, benefit from free utilities and a number of tax exemptions. A Penal Code provision prohibiting the “causing of tension between religious communities” has long been applied widely to restrict proselytising by any religious community and to discourage religious conversion. Under applicable Islamic law, Muslims are effectively prohibited from changing their religion, though conversions to Islam are recognised. Islamic personal status laws prohibit a woman registered as Muslim from marrying a non-Muslim. The ongoing conflict in Syria has led to a marked deterioration of the rule of law in many parts of the country.
Syria acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 21st April 1969. The ICCPR upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to hold a religion of one’s choice and the right to manifest that religion (Article 18). It also upholds the rights of minorities and the principle of non-discrimination. Syria’s accession to the ICCPR was made without any reservation limiting its commitment to religious freedom.
Syria’s Christian communities face multiple challenges within the context of the current conflict. In parts of the country, in particular those areas under government control, Christians enjoy relatively good standing in society, though some restrictions apply to recognised Christian communities, especially to activities that could be construed as proselytism. The common assumption (often but by no means always correct) that Christians are pro-government presents a vulnerability on political grounds, especially for Christians in areas controlled by opposition groups. The deterioration of the rule of law has led to an increasing vulnerability to kidnappings for ransom, including amongst Christian communities – several Christian leaders have been abducted since the start of the conflict by militants for political purposes and/or financial gain. The greatest challenges for Syria’s Christian communities have been in those areas controlled by extremist groups, such as Daesh (so-called ‘Islamic State’) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat an-Nusra), whose widespread violence has included attacks against Christians, Christian-owned property and church buildings. In Raqqah and some other areas, Christians have been forced either to convert to Islam, be subjugated under the jizya tax system, face execution or flee – leading to mass displacement. Elsewhere, military offensives by various parties in predominantly Christian areas have also led to mass displacement of Christians, while many in Government-controlled areas, including Christians, have fled to avoid military conscription. In February 2015 in Hasakah province, a military offensive was accompanied by the mass abduction by Daesh of more than 250 Christians (almost all of whom had been released by the end of February 2016). In all areas there is strong family and societal pressure against those who choose to leave Islam, and in extreme cases these responses are violent. Those considered apostates can face sanctions in the Shari’a personal status courts such as forcible divorce and removal of child custody. Those who choose to leave Islam are especially vulnerable in areas controlled by extremist groups.