(Pictured: Exterior of Chapel of St. Paul, built where Paul was lowered from the gates of Damascus while escaping. Photo © BillBl. View all images in the Chapel of St. Paul (Bab Kisan) Photo Gallery.)

By Michael D. Peabody, Esq.

Despite serious public opposition to involvement in another quagmire in the Middle East, chances are the United States will soon be involved in the two-year-old civil war in Syria. While there are many questions regarding how this will help or hinder national foreign policy aims, few have considered how a shift in power could affect the religious freedom of the people of Syria.

Religion in Syria

Syria is a nation of 22.7 million people covering 184,180 square km, approximately the size of the U.S. state of Washington. The population is predominantly Muslim, with 59-60% identifying as Sunni and 13% identifying as Shia including Alawite, Twelvers, and Ismailis combined. Three percent belong to the Druze sect of Islam, and 10% identify as Christian with the majority being Antiochian Orthodox, along with members of the Greek Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian Orthodox, Protestant, and other groups. There are officially no Seventh-day Adventists in Syria.

Although Syria borders Israel, there are very few Jewish people, who by history have been in Syria for millenia. There are approximately 200 Jews in Syria, with the majority having emigrated after the 1967 war and in an additional mass emigration in 1992. Most Jews live in Damascus, speak Arabic, and are treated as a religious community rather than a ethnic community. Jews face official discrimination in Syria and are the only religious group who are identified as such on ID cards and passports. Jewish people must have official permission to leave the country and are prohibited from serving in the military or in high level civil jobs. The state owned and operated media also publishes anti-Zionist articles and editorial cartoons with demonic images of Jews, and presents a conspiracy theories claiming the Jews cooperated with Hitler to create an illusion of a Holocaust to justify the development of Israel.

Syria does not recognize the right of Jehovah's Witnesses to practice their faith at all.

The Syrian government is intolerant of, and actively suppresses extremist and even conservative forms of Islam as a threat to state stability. Since 2007, the Syrian Supreme State Security Court has sentenced 22 alleged Islamists to lengthy prison sentences and there are unknown numbers of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have been detained, imprisoned and perhaps executed.

Legal System

Syrian society operates under two judicial systems – secular and religious. Secular courts hear public, civil, and criminal law cases while religious courts consisting of shari'a courts, doctrinal courts, and spiritual courts. These courts hear personal status law cases such as marriage and religious status. Appeals of religious courts go to the canonical and spiritual divisions of the Court of Cassation.

While generally secular, the Syrian constitution says that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, and that Islamic jurisprudence is "a" main source of legislation. According to legal scholar Nael Georges, in practice, if there is no Islamic law that governs a certain circumstance, then secular law is applied. There is no strict separation between Islam and the government.

Schools are officially secular and non-sectarian but some are run by Druze and Christian communities. Religious instruction in schools is only in Islam and Christianity.

In a deviation from the general secular nature of the law, Section 548 of the penal code specifically provides for reduced or commuted sentences in "honor crimes" involving a male relative against a female relative suspected of being involved in adultery. At a 2007 lecture at Damascus University, Syrian Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Baderedin Hassoun called for amending this law. It is unclear how often this occurs.

The Syrian military is secular and soldiers are not permitted to express their faith during work hours and Muslims are discouraged from praying while on duty.

History and Politics

On March 8, 1963, the Syrian Armed Forces overthrew the post-WWII "French Mandate for Syria," and the Ba'athist party took power. The Ba'athist party has traditionally been seen as being opposed to religion in general, as Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), a Syrian philosopher and sociologist who played a significant role in the development of the Ba'athist movement in Syria and Iraq, was heavily influenced by Hobbesian and Marxist views on religion which associated religion with corrupt social order, oppression, and exploitation of the weak. Aflaq, who was raised a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, was a proponent of of separation of state and religion and secularism but also opposed atheism.

The Syrian tension with Israel, which existed since the formation of the Jewish state following WWII, took on new dimensions in the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union, an ally of Syria, told the Syrian government that Israeli forces were amassing in northern Israel in order to attack Syria. Syria called for assistance from its ally Egypt, and the Egyptian military responded by entering the Sinai Peninsula and asking the UN observer forces to leave. The Egyptians then blockaded the Israeli port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, claiming that the shipping lines went through Egyptian territorial waters, a move that frightened Israel into action.

On June 5, 1967, Israel preemptively attacked Egypt and Syria and destroyed the air forces of both countries within a few hours. Soon after, Jordan joined the fight in support of Syria and Egypt and was also attacked. After six days of fighting Israel defeated the three nations and took over the West Bank from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The decisive defeat discredited the three Arab regimes, and launched decades of fighting over the captured territories.

In the early 1970s, after the election of President Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar Hafez al-Assad, Sunni Muslims rioted, claiming that the constitution was the product of the Alawite dominated, secular Ba'athist regime and demanded stricter Islamic law. The Sunni Muslims also pushed for Islam as a state party. In an effort to restore peace, the Syrian constitution was passed and went into effect on March 13, 1973 with provisions that the President must be a Muslim and that Islamic jurisprudence was a main source of legislation.

At the same time, tensions increased when other Muslim groups believed that al-Assad's Alawi sect routinely received special treatment from the government.

Hafez al-Assad, who held power from 1970 to 2000 despite ongoing attempts from Syrian rebel groups to end his rule, dealt harshly with religious dissent, including suppressing a Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt in 1982. His son, Bashar al-Assad, the current president of Syria who was "democratically elected" by 97 percent of the population when his father died in 2000, has also faced challenges to his rule, including the Arab Spring of 2011, and has likewise fought Islamic forces who have engaged in civil war against the regime.

With arms pouring in from outside Syria, the two-year-old civil war in Syria is largely a sectarian struggle between the Sunni Muslim bloc and minority Shias, Alawites, and to some extent, Christians who back the Assad regime, or more specifically, are frightened of the Sunni rebels.

In response to the Arab Spring, which brought down secular-leaning regimes in Libya and Egypt, Bashar al-Assad has significantly limited civil and political freedoms and has engaged in surveillance of religious groups. Despite these activities, the religious minorities have generally supported the Ba'ath regime because its secular character allows them to survive in contrast to the Islamic rebel groups which would impose a brand of religious intolerance. In 2013 Bashar al-Assad gave a speech affirming his commitment to maintaining Syria as a secular state.

Various actions of the government have infuriated rebel groups, including a 2010 government ban on wearing face-covering jiqab in public and private universities because of a fear of increasing Islamic extremism among young Muslim students. Hundreds of teachers wearing them were transferred to administrative jobs where they would not come into contact with students. Further, rumors of persecution of religious fundamentalists have added fuel to the fire.

The Situation

For forty-years, the secular-leaning Ba'athist party, which has supporters from religious minorities including Alawites, Chirstians, Shia Muslims, and Kurds has relied on iron-fisted rule to maintain stability in the region, brutally crushing opposition from religious fundamentalists.

According to reports from British news website Sky.com, "Al Qaeda-linked rebels" have been shelling Maaloula, a Christian village north of Damascus while people have taken refuge in a convent that houses 13 nuns and 27 orphans. 

Father Amir Kassar, a Catholic priest who was injured by rebel rockets told Sky News that if outside forces, including Russia on the side of the Assad regime or the United States on the side of the rebels joins the fight, the sectarian divisions would get worse.

"We don't care who is the ruler of this country. We are against the formation of an Islamic state. We want a Syrian secular state for all Syrians."

At its core, the Syrian situation is a civil war and if the Assad regime is destroyed there would be a power vacuum. The rebels are depending on the United States to attack Assad and are poised to take over once that happens. Christian groups, who have not been actively involved in fighting for one side or the other, are particularly vulnerable and some fear they will be the victims of genocide if the rebels take power.

These fears are not unfounded. Despite the talk of freedom and democracy that would flourish in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, religious fundamentalism and chaos took hold, and religious minorities like Christians were persecuted. "We heard a lot about democracy and freedom from the U.S. in Iraq, and we see now the results – how the country came to be destroyed," said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo in a recent interview. "The first to lose were the Christians of Iraq."

This echoes concerns raised by International Christian Concern during the Arab Spring protests that many Syrian Christians were more afraid of the anti-government protesters than of the government itself, because at least Assad displayed tolerance toward religious minorities.

Contemplating the potential destabilization that could result from direct strikes, Pope Francis earlier this week spoke out against attacks on Syria and has also taken a hard line against chemical weapons. "War brings on war! Violence brings on violence. With utmost firmness, I condemn the use of chemical weapons. I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart."

The Pope also appealed for world leaders to find a nonmilitary solution to the Syrian civil war.

One does not have to align with the goals of the Vatican to stand against further violent action in Syria. Perhaps the best way to approach the matter would be to allow weapons inspectors to evaluate the threat and determine who caused it and take steps to bring those individuals to justice. In an age of precision weapons, using international law as intended may be the most precise approach.

Churches are international organizations with their own foreign policy aim consisting of proclaiming the gospel. While it is tempting for local churches to adopt the position of their host nations in order to appear patriotic, it is important to recognize the responsibility that churches have to all peaceful people of faith throughout the world, and the centrality of the mandate to spread the gospel to every person on earth, regardless of where they live.

As the darkness of war spreads throughout the Middle East, it would behoove Christians in peaceful parts of the world who have influence over the deployment of weapons to recognize the primacy of the Great Commission over any form of earthly conflict and to recognize that it is difficult to spread the gospel with a Bible in one hand and a missile control switch in the other.

That Christians have been persecuted in Syria is the matter of Biblical record from the early days of the New Testament, with Christians having fled from Jerusalem to Damascus to escape persecution. As a result of this emigration, Damascus consequently became one of the first regions to receive Christianity. Saul (Shawul) of Tarsus was converted to Christianity on his way to Damascus where he had planned on arresting or killing Christians. Paul ended up staying in Damascus for three years. He later left the city for a while. When he came back to Damascus, he spent three more years, was persecuted himself, and was forced to flee the city at night. The gates were heavily guarded, but the disciples helped Paul narrowly escape death by lowering him in a basket from a window in the Kisan gate (Bab Kisan) (see Acts 9:25)

When Paul was in danger, his friends saved his life. When Christians in Damascus and throughout Syria are in danger, perhaps it is time for their friends to act on their behalf, and on behalf of all other peaceful people of faith in order to oppose actions that will likely lead to further religious persecution and support those efforts that will bring those who are responsible for committing atrocities to justice.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." Matthew 5:9


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