There were reports of abuses of religious freedom in the country, including reports of imprisonment and detention. The UN estimated that nearly 35,000 civilians were killed during the year. As part of the escalating conflict during the year, the government increased its targeting and surveillance of members of religious groups it deemed a “threat,” including members of the country’s Sunni majority. While opposition to the government began as a series of protests in response to widespread regime abuses, the regime framed the protests and later the armed resistance in sectarian terms, maintaining that protesters and oppositionists were associated with “extreme Islamist factions.” The government continued to monitor the activities of all religious groups and to discourage proselytizing, deemed a threat to relations among and within different faiths. Violence or repression against those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood was common practice for the regime.
The government targeted, arrested, abused, and killed those it accused, often falsely, of cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist, or other movements it considered “extreme.” There were credible reports the regime killed people because of their religious affiliation in mixed neighborhoods in Homs and rural Aleppo. In January members of the pro-regime militia known as the “shabbiha” killed 14 members of a Sunni family in Karm al-Zeitoun, including eight children ranging in age from eight months to nine years. There were unconfirmed reports that Alawi residents left the town days earlier after advance warning from the regime.
The government also broadened the scope of those it considered both Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and religious extremists, and used such labels to justify the mistreatment of potential oppositionists. Extrajudicial punishment of these individuals and groups was exacted during the year as the result of the ongoing conflict. Fourteen Sunni men were reportedly tortured and killed in October by Air Force intelligence officials due to their criticism of the regime. The funeral procession for one of the men was bombed outside Al-Zaitoona mosque in Muadamiyet al-Sham, a known rallying point for anti-government protests. High-level defectors from the armed forces reported Sunni soldiers and their families increasingly faced detention and other forms of harassment due to their religious affiliation.
Prosecutions were primarily based on the perceived political threat posed by alleged Muslim Brotherhood affiliates and religious extremists to the country’s secular system and the survival of the regime. Human rights groups alleged that many of the accused were simply followers of a particular preacher or mosque rather than participants in any extremist groups, although escalating conflict led to the emergence of several anti-government groups of various religious persuasions. The government rarely furnished documentation on the number arrested; however, observers noted the government had detained tens of thousands more citizens since the unrest began. Almost none of the detained was provided due process. The regime referred to all anti-government protesters as “armed gangs” affiliated with “extremist” or terrorist movements.
In September the body of Greek Orthodox priest Reverend Fadi Jamil Haddad was found outside Damascus. The priest was reportedly kidnapped by unknown perpetrators as he was trying to secure the release of another kidnapping victim. There were no reports that the government investigated the matter. Some accounts accused the regime of responsibility while others blamed opposition militias, extremist groups, or common criminals.
Opposition activists claimed that the regime targeted Christians, Kurds, and other minorities. The network Al-Arabiya reported that, in February, government forces attacked, raided, and confiscated property from the historic Syriac Orthodox Um al-Zennar Church in Homs, sparking a rise in Christian participation in anti-government protests. In May authorities arrested some Christian worshippers and drove others away from St. Cyril’s Church in Damascus during a memorial service for an activist killed earlier.
Government surveillance of religiously affiliated groups such as Christian NGOs increased during the year, because the regime occasionally characterized such groups as “fronts” for opposition assistance transfers. On February 26, local newspapers reported that the government ordered all banks to cease transactions with the Greek Orthodox Mariamite Church because of allegations that the church was funneling donations from foreign churches to the opposition. The regime reportedly also fired a non-explosive missile at the Convent of our Lady of Saidnaya because it was reportedly providing medicine and supplies to bombed regions. In June the government expelled the founder of the monastic community at Deir Mar Musa al-Habachi, Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Ogolio, after 30 years of residency in the country. The expulsion was based in part on his interfaith work and his condemnation of the regime’s human rights violations. Father Paolo was initially ordered to leave the country in November 2011 but was ultimately allowed to stay until June.
Government security services monitored all groups, religious and nonreligious. The government considered militant Islam a particular threat to the regime and closely monitored those individuals it considered to be religious militants. The government openly threatened members of the Sunni majority, warning against increased communications with foreign coreligionists, defining such communication as opposition political or military activity. While the government allowed mosques to be built, it monitored and controlled sermons and often closed mosques between prayers. The government increased the imprisonment and summary execution of individuals it deemed to be associated with opposition radio and television programming, including religious programming that did not meet government-sanctioned criteria.
The rate of prosecution or government harassment for proselytizing increased, with reported cases of government surveillance of and fines imposed on Christian, Druze, and Sunni organizations. Most charges carried sentences of imprisonment from five years to life, although such sentences were in the past often reduced to one or two years. The government issued numerous threatening statements suggesting that sentences for proselytizing and for membership in illegal religious groups were to become increasingly harsh.
Government policy claimed to disavow sectarianism of any kind, but religion was a factor in determining some career opportunities. The minority Alawi sect, of which President Asad and his family are members, continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, including in the military and other security services. Christians often complained about growing limitations on their influence and positions in the government. The regime continued its widespread marketing campaign against “fitna,” or sectarian strife, while simultaneously attributing opposition violence to religious extremists and terrorists. Opposition figures continued to accuse the authorities of systematically using sectarian fear as a strategy to counter anti-government demonstrations.
The regime continued to frame opposition actions as targeting the Christian population. At the same time, it increased its own targeting of Christian and Alawi anti-regime activists in order to eliminate minority voices that might counter its narrative of “Sunni-sponsored violence.” For example, in addition to ongoing violent attacks, the regime issued instructions to all banks across the country to stop transactions with the Greek Orthodox Mariamite Church on charges of money laundering, as the Church allegedly was receiving funds from expatriates to support opposition activities. Opposition members continued to highlight these regime actions as evidence of the government’s attempts to bolster sectarianism in order to justify its crackdown.
Government-sponsored media coverage and rhetoric was consistently anti-Israeli, as it has been in the past, and the media continued to disseminate anti-Semitic material through radio and television programming, news articles, cartoons, and other mass media. The government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of government-sanctioned forms of Islam.
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 those of the regime. On April 27 the grand mufti blamed the Arab Spring and the ongoing violence in Syria on a “Western plot that will benefit the Zionist entity.”
The government allowed foreign Christian faith-based NGOs such as the Jesuit Refugee Service to operate in the country under the auspices of one of the historically established churches but without officially registering. However, it required foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Ministry of Religious Endowments to operate. Security forces regularly questioned these charities on their sources of income and monitored their expenditures. The regime suspected Islamic charitable organizations of serving as conduits of foreign funding for the opposition.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor prohibited religious leaders from serving as the directors of boards for Islamic charities; traditionally, clerics headed nearly all Islamic charities in the country.