The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom, although the government imposes restrictions on this right, particularly against those groups it considers extremist in nature. Government policies and the judicial system allow many groups to worship freely, provided that religious rites “do not disturb the public order.” The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they must conduct their activities without attracting its attention. Citizens have the legal right to sue the government when they believe it has violated their rights. During the year, there were no known lawsuits against the government over specifically religious issues.
Membership in any “Salafist” organization, a designation generally denoting conservative Sunni fundamentalism, is illegal. The government and the State Security Court have not defined the exact parameters of what constitutes a Salafist activity or explained why it is illegal. According to Law 49, affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death, although in practice the sentence was typically commuted to 12 years in prison. However, throughout the year the law was not systematically implemented.
There is no official state religion, although the constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence is a principal source of legislation. The government selected for religious leadership positions those Muslims who commit to preserve the secular nature of the state. The grand mufti of the country, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, continued to call on Muslims to stand up to Islamic fundamentalism and urged leaders of the various religious groups to engage in regular dialogue for mutual understanding. The grand mufti was a controversial figure throughout the unrest; he publicly allied his comments and positions with the regime’s. On October 2, armed gunmen killed the mufti’s son, Saria Hassoun. The regime has not identified those responsible.
Religious minorities, with the exception of Jews, were represented among the senior officer corps. However, Christians often complain about growing limitations on their influence and positions in the government. In keeping with the government’s policy of secularism, there are no chaplains of any faith in the military. In the past, military personnel were expected to refrain from expressing overtly their faith during work hours.
For issues of personal status, the government requires its citizens to be affiliated nominally with Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Religious affiliation is documented on the birth certificate and is required on legal documentation when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage. Recognized religious institutions and clergy, including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian organizations, receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.
The government does not require the designation of religion on a passport or national identity card.
The government restricts full freedom in religious matters, including proselytizing and conversion. While there is no civil law prohibiting proselytizing, the government discourages it and occasionally expelled or prosecuted missionaries for “posing a threat to the relations among religious groups.” Most charges of this kind carry sentences of imprisonment from five years to life, although such sentences are often reduced to one or two years. The government does not recognize the religious status of Muslims who convert to other religions, but Christian converts to Islam are accorded official recognition. In the event of a conversion to Christianity, the government still regards the individual convert as Muslim and still subject to Sharia (Islamic law). A Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman can marry a Muslim man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in a Muslim cemetery unless she converts to Islam. If a person wants to convert from Christianity to Islam, the law states that the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.
All religions and religious orders must register with the government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all religious and nonreligious group meetings except for worship. The registration process can be complicated and lengthy, but the government usually allows groups to operate informally while awaiting approval.
During the year, the government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of government-sanctioned forms of Islam.
Members of religious groups are subject to their respective religious laws concerning marriage and divorce. The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on Islamic law, and government-appointed religious judges interpreted some of its provisions in a manner that discriminated against women. In the case of interreligious disputes, Islamic law takes precedence.
Inheritance is based on Islamic law for all citizens except Christians. Accordingly, women are usually granted half the share of inheritance that male heirs receive. When a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to inheritance.
The government generally does not prohibit links between its citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between its citizens and the international hierarchies that govern some religious groups. However, it prohibits contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.
There is no specific law against the production and distribution of religious literature or other types of media. However, the penal code prohibits “causing tension between religious communities,” a provision the government uses to prosecute groups it deems harmful to society, mostly those it views as Salafist.
The government permits the use of religious language in public, including the placement of banners bearing religious slogans at prominent public landmarks during religious holidays. The display of nativity scenes and other symbols associated with Christmas is common.
The government allows foreign Christian faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in the country under the auspices of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches and without officially registering. Many of these NGOs work directly with the Iraqi refugee populations in cooperation with the various churches in Syria.
The law does not permit conscientious objection to military service. Historically, both Christian and Muslim religious leaders are exempted from military service, although Muslim religious leaders must pay a levy to be exempted.
All public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although in practice the Christian and Druze communities operate some schools. There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all religious groups, with government-approved teachers and curriculums. Religious instruction is provided on Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Groups participating in Islamic courses include only Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Ismaili, Yezidi, and Druze. Although Arabic is the official language in public schools, the government permits the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, Syriac (Aramaic), and Chaldean in some schools on the premise that they are “liturgical languages.” There is no mandatory religious study at the university level.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Orthodox and Western Easter, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, the Islamic New Year, and Western Christmas.