The government regime and allied militias, Lebanese Hizballah, and Shia militias made up of foreign fighters engaged in violence and discrimination against most religious minority groups and Sunnis. The regime targeted Sunnis disproportionately, largely viewing religious affiliation as a proxy for political beliefs, and assuming most Sunnis supported the opposition to its rule. The regime and its Shia militia allies killed, arrested, and physically abused members of targeted religious minority groups as well as Sunnis, and intentionally destroyed their property. The UN estimated by year’s end that more than 200,000 individuals had been killed since the start of the conflict in the country. Sources reported that regime-affiliated militias seized the homes of Sunnis who had fled, with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and changing the religious demography of these areas by populating the area with Shia and Alawite residents.
Media and academic experts said the government portrayed the armed resistance in sectarian terms, maintaining opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance. For instance, in a news conference in September, Bashar al-Jaafari, the Syrian Ambassador to the UN, accused the opposition of being comprised of terrorists and claimed that government forces are “fighting terror on behalf of the whole world.” Government-appointed religious officials called on citizens to engage in “jihad” in support of the regime. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), the rise in government-supported minority militias (shabiha) and the positioning of militias within their respective supportive communities fostered hostilities along sectarian lines.
There were credible reports the regime killed individuals because of their religious affiliation and targeted towns and neighborhoods in various parts of the country for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment on the basis of the religious affiliation of residents. For example, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported in August the presence of multiple pro-regime Shia militias fighting on behalf of the government in Aleppo early in the year, including Lebanese Hizballah and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade. A civilian in the southern Aleppo countryside reported that fighters from Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas killed 26 men February 22 after abducting them from a cultural center building, accusing them of being terrorists and “Yazid sons,” lining them against a wall, and opening fire. The SNHR also reported witness testimony from a June 21 incident in Rasm An-Nafl Village in Aleppo where the regime bombed residents, killing 192 civilians, including 27 children and 21 women in one day. In February the UK newspaper The Guardian reported that Shia and Sunni factions in Aleppo engaged in heavy fighting that resulted in the death of several hundred civilians. Campaigns of violence specifically targeted on the basis of faith contributed to the widespread displacement of civilians that numbered 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and more than 3.2 million refugees by year’s end, according to the UN. Actual figures may have been higher.
The government regime undertook judicial prosecution primarily against individuals perceived as constituting a political threat to its survival, including its secular identity. Human rights groups reported that many of the accused were targeted for being followers of a particular preacher or mosque rather than participants in extremist groups, although several antigovernment groups of various religious makeups, some exhibiting violent extremist behavior, had emerged since the start of the conflict. The government rarely furnished public documentation on the number arrested; however, human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government had detained tens of thousands of citizens since the unrest began. Reportedly, almost none of the detained were afforded due process.
According to the Syrian American Council, there were at least 16 documented deaths of Sunni clerics and religious figures while in regime custody, bringing the reported total to at least 64 Sunni religious clerics killed since the start of the conflict. Activists said the actual figure is likely much higher.
Violence or repression against Sunni opposition groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, was common practice. Until 2012, the sentence for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was typically commuted to 12 years in prison. During the year, however, sentencing ranged from lengthy imprisonment to the death penalty. Additionally, according to civil society activists, the government often engaged in extrajudicial detentions and killed such individuals rather than prosecuting them in court.
The government continued to imprison, and on some occasions summarily execute, individuals it deemed to be associated with opposition radio and television programming, including religious programming that did not meet government criteria.
The government engaged in forcible religious re-education programs. For example, media reported in February that the governor of Homs Province announced nearly 200 men, evacuated from Homs City during a cease-fire in the besieged city, were being held by Syrian security services and would receive religion classes to “modify their incorrect interpretation of Islam.” Their fate remained unknown at year’s end.
The SNHR reported that the regime deliberately targeted places of worship, including churches and mosques, and also converted them to bases to launch shelling into surrounding areas. The SNHR stated that regime forces targeted at least 244 places of worship throughout the year.
On February 13, regime forces targeted the St. Paul Church in Daraya outside of Damascus, severely damaging the building. Also in February the regime shelled one of the oldest Christian sites of worship in the world, the Church of Saints Constantine and Helen in Yabroud, whose structure dates back to the first millennium.
During the first two weeks in June the regime severely damaged dozens of Sunni mosques in Aleppo, including the more than 200-year-old Haroon Dada Mosque, as well as the Subhan and Firdous Mosques. According to the SNHR, regime forces bombed the Othman bin Affan Mosque in Aleppo and the town mosque in Madyara in February and March, respectively. In some cases, the regime reportedly targeted mosques claiming that they served as rallying points for protesters. Regime forces converted the Mahrada Monastery in Hama Province to a small military base, using it to shell neighboring areas and to store military vehicles and heavy artillery.
In May regime security forces shelled and significantly damaged the historic Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue (also known as the Jobar Synagogue) in Damascus. The synagogue had been a center for Jewish worship and devotion for more than 400 years and was reportedly the repository of thousands of religious and historical artifacts.
The government continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups and to discourage proselytizing. While there is no law prohibiting proselytizing, the government discouraged it and occasionally expelled or prosecuted missionaries for “posing a threat to the relations among religious groups.”
The government permitted the use of religious language in public, including banners bearing religious slogans at prominent public landmarks during religious holidays. The display of nativity scenes and other symbols associated with Christmas was common.
The government allowed 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 worked directly to provide humanitarian assistance in cooperation with the various churches in the country.
Recognized religious minority groups, with the exception of Jews, were represented among the senior officer corps of the Syrian military. While the law does not permit conscientious objection to military service, historically both Christian and Muslim religious leaders have been exempted, although Muslim religious leaders were required to pay a levy for exemption.
The regime openly threatened Sunnis, warning against increased communications with foreign coreligionists, defining such communication as opposition political or military activity. The government monitored and controlled sermons and often closed mosques between prayers. At the same time the government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of Islam that it deemed appropriate.
The government allowed foreign Christian faith-based NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering. It required foreign Islamic NGOs, however, to register and receive approval from the Ministry of Religious Endowments to operate. Security forces regularly questioned these organizations on their sources of income and monitored their expenditures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities, maintaining the previous year’s departure from traditional practice under which clerics headed most Islamic charities in the country.
There were limits placed on the distribution of religious media. Despite having no specific law against the production and distribution of religious literature or other types of media, the government reportedly used provisions in the penal code to prohibit “causing tension between religious communities” to restrict distribution of religious materials by groups it deemed a threat.
The regime continued to condemn sectarian strife, for example during public speeches by prominent government-affiliated figures such as Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, while attributing opposition violence to religious extremists and terrorists. Opposition figures continued to say the authorities systematically used sectarian fear as a strategy to counter antigovernment demonstrations and justify government attacks on civilian and residential areas.
Religion was a factor in determining some career advancement. The minority Alawite group, of which President Asad and his family are members, continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in the military and other security services.
The media continued to disseminate anti-Semitic material through government radio and television programming, news articles, cartoons, and other mass media. Government-appointed Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun continued to evoke sectarian rhetoric and disparage “Zionist control” of holy sites in Jerusalem in his public remarks. The regime also regularly cited a “Zionist conspiracy” as responsible for the conflict and violence the country is currently experiencing.
In March, following the highly publicized release of the 12 nuns taken captive from Maloula, regime media described the nuns as “traitors to the nation.”