Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out the case for limited military action against Syrian regime targets as a result of their alleged use of chemical weapons that killed over one thousand people - including hundreds of children. Syrian authorities deny their involvement and, in a BBC interview, said that any US military action against Syria would amount to "support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates."
As the tensions continue to mount in the two-year civil war that began during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, here are three things to know about religion and religious freedom in Syria from recent Pew Research studies.
1. Syria is more religiously diverse than you might think
While Syria's population is largely Muslim, Sunni and Shia Muslim communities contribute to its diversity. By comparison, Egypt is less diverse because its Muslim population is almost entirely Sunni, while Christians make up a similar share according to Pew Research estimates. (See more about Egypt.)
Sunni Muslims in Syria number between 15-16 million, while Shia Muslims, mostly belonging to the Alawite sect, number between 3-4 million. Although the Alawites are a numerical minority, they control many of the mechanisms of power within the country. According to the U.S. State Department, for instance, the "Alawi sect, of which President Assad and his family are members, continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, including in the military and other security services."
Among Christians, approximately 590,000 are Orthodox, 430,000 are Catholic and 40,000 belong to various Protestant denominations. Syria is famous in Christian history for being the location of St. Paul's conversion in Aleppo.
2. The Syrian civil war has increasingly fallen along sectarian lines, threatening Majorities and Minorities alike
A June 2013 Pew Research report noted that the ongoing civil war in Syria, which began as a protest against the regime of President Assad, now falls largely along sectarian lines. There are also some indications that the sectarian dimensions of the conflict have spilled across borders. For instance, Hezbollah - a Shia Muslim group designated as a terrorist organization by several governments - reportedly crossed into Syria from Lebanon to join the ongoing civil war on the side of the regime led by President Assad. The coalition of rebel forces seeking to topple the regime, however, is largely Sunni Muslim.
Smaller religious minorities are also caught up in the Syrian conflict. For instance, in April two Orthodox Christian bishops were kidnapped by gunmen in Aleppo, Syria. They are still being held. And, as noted by the Wall Street Journal, ancient Catholic and Orthodox communities are finding themselves on the wrong side of an increasingly sectarian conflict, threatening their very survival. Indeed, reports indicate that the uncertain future of Syrian Christians is one shared by many historic Christian communities across the Middle East.
3. Syria has among the world's highest government restrictions on religion
Syria has among the highest levels of government restrictions on religion, ranking 9th most restrictive worldwide, according to the most recent Pew Research report. Government restrictions in Syria included active use of force against religious groups; very high favoritism of Shia Islam above others; prohibitions on Muslims converting from Islam to other religions; and restrictions on religious literature or broadcasting.
In particular, the Syrian "government increased its targeting and surveillance of members of faith groups it deemed a threat, including members of the country’s Sunni majority," according to the U.S. State Department.
For a discussion on the association between social hostilities and government restrictions, see my TEDx Talk.
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