Last Updated 25 September 2020

The Syrian Arab Republic is a multi-ethnic nation (predominantly Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and Turkomans), which was around 75% Sunni, 10% Shia, and the remainder mainly a mix of other Muslim, Christian and other religious groups.1 Many of these groups have been disrupted and displaced in conflict in recent years.

The country is in the throes of a civil war, which is in its 10th year. The civil war began as a secular and nonviolent pro-democracy protest against the government. President Bashar al-Assad responded to the protests with extreme violence, which caused members of the military to defect and form the Free Syria Army. Assad’s government committed numerous atrocities against Syrian civilians during the civil war. Amid reports of massacres, indiscriminate violence and the use of chemical weapons in populated areas, Assad has maintained the assertion that his government is engaged in fighting terrorists rather than peaceful civilian protesters2; Assadist policy was designed to provoke sectarian breakdown in Syria. For months, Assad pursued an “undeclared non-aggression pact” with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (“ISIS”), with the aim of scaring minorities and secularists into loyalty and convincing foreign powers that his dictatorship was an essential solution to problems of extremism it had itself manufactured3R. Yassin-Kassab and L. Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2016), Ch. 6. . This strategy proved to be an effective one.

According to the UNHCR, around 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011, and 6.6 million have been internally displaced4 The government’s war crimes, including unlawful killings, persistent attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention, all disproportionately punished civilians, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims5 In the wake of the mass displacement of large numbers of people, the Assad regime is attempting to forcefully engineer demographic changes to cement his hold on power. Several decrees passed by the government prevent displaced residents and refugees from returning to their homes, including by handing their properties over to regime loyalists6

To date, Assad’s regime has managed to recapture most of Syria’s largest cities, although significant territory remains in the hands of opposition fighters as well as an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, the Syrian Democratic Forces (now under attack from Turkey).7

Even the limited freedoms granted by its Constitution are therefore being violated on a massive scale.

Grave Violations
Severe Discrimination

Constitution and government

Discrimination based on religion is prohibited by law. The state is often referred to, and described by the Assad regime, as “secular”, and there is no official state religion. However, in fact the 2012 Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence is a principal source of legislation.

Syria has a dual legal system which includes both secular and religious courts. Civil and criminal cases are heard in secular courts, while the Sharia courts handle personal, family, and religious matters.8

Prior to the civil war, the Syrian Constitution, law and other policies provided some limited freedom of religion or belief, but very little freedom of expression, especially with regard to the media.

According to law, membership in certain religious organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. For example, Salafist (Sunni fundamentalist) organizations are illegal and supporting or affiliating with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been punishable by death since the 1980s.

The government officially recognizes Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All religious groups are required to register and the registration process can be lengthy. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards, except for Jews, who are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.9 Apostasy is not directly forbidden, however, the authorities restrict proselytizing and prohibit conversion of Muslims from Islam. Others may convert to Islam. If a Christian converts to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric has to inform the convert’s diocese. Societal pressure further makes conversion, particularly from Islam to Christianity, relatively rare and forces many converts to flee outside of the country.

Education and children’s rights

All state schools are officially government-run and non-sectarian, 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 curricula. Religious instruction is provided for Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Other religious minority groups can choose between either or attend private schools. Although Arabic is the official school language, the authorities allow in some schools courses in Armenian, Hebrew, Syriac (Aramaic), and Chaldean.

In ISIS-controlled territory the school curriculum was altered. Several basic academic subjects were banned, for example chemistry, and some schools were used to train minor boys for “jihad”. The schools teach according to ISIS’s ideological priorities.

Since 2011 several million children have been forced to leave school.

Family, community and society

For issues of personal status, or family law, the government requires citizens to be affiliated nominally with Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. The government allows these recognized groups to use their own religious laws in matters of family law. Consequently, members of religious groups are subject to their respective religious laws concerning marriage and divorce. Religious affiliation is required on birth certificates and legal documentation when marrying.  In the case of interreligious disputes, Islamic law takes precedence.

Gender equality

While the Syrian regime is nominally secular, its approach to women’s rights is still deeply influenced by traditional religious forces. The Personal Status Law governs matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance10;

Sharia is the basis of inheritance law for all citizens, except Christians. Women inherit usually half of that of male heirs and a Christian woman married to a Muslim man can not inherit from her deceased husband.

The religious family law also discriminates against women. Under the law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, but a Muslim man can marry a Christian or Jewish woman. Women need the consent of their male guardian in order to marry. Many marriages are arranged and women can face societal or financial pressure to agree. Adultery is a criminal offence for both sexes, but the punishment is twice as high for women as for men. The law allows men to marry up to four wives without the consent of the first wife. Men can repudiate their wives, women can obtain a divorce with the Islamic principle of “khula”, if they agree to renounce their dowry. Domestic violence and spousal rape are not criminalized. In addition, raped women may face violence of their own family for shaming the family’s honour. Abortion is only legal, if the pregnant woman’s life is in

A UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report in 2018 that found that thousands of women and girls had been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence by warring parties in Syria. The report notes that:

“beginning in 2011, rapes and other acts of sexual violence carried out by Government forces and associated militias during ground operations, at checkpoints, and in detention formed part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population, and amount to crimes against humanity.”12

Women and girls situated in the parts of Syria under the control of ISIS had their fundamental rights routinely denied in a brutal fashion. During the height of its Caliphate, some of ISIS’ practices included the recurrent stoning of women and girls to death on charges of adultery, executing sexual minorities by throwing them off buildings, publicly lashing those who violated its dress code, and forced marriage of Sunni girls and women to ISIS fighters.13

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Media freedom

Since the Ba-ath Party (led by President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad) seized power in a coup in the 1960s, freedom of expression in Syria has been severely restricted. Since 2013, it has scored among the 10 worst countries in the world for freedom of expression violations against the media, according to Reporters Without Borders’ ranking index14

Prior to the revolution, Syria only had three government-controlled national newspapers and the state closely controlled all radio stations and television, either directly or indirectly15 It made use of its extensive control over media outlets to dictate the narrative over the conflict, deny its involvement in war crimes and disseminate propaganda16

A Press Law adopted in 2001 (Decree No. 50/2001) tightened the governments control over the media by criminalizing the publication of news on certain topics, including reports about “national security” and “national unity”. Article 51a broadly prohibits the publication of “falsehoods” and “fabricated reports”, while Article 56d states that licences of publications that “call for changing the state constitution through unconstitutional means” will be revoked17

Syrian authorities regularly arrest and detain human rights activists, journalists, and bloggers, especially those advocating for democratic political reform. Many are accused of “defaming the state” under Article 287 of the criminal code or of “publishing false information” and “undermining national sentiment” under Articles 283 and 28618 During the first five years of the civil war, journalists and citizen media actors became targets of the regime due to their role in informing the world of the crimes committed by the government. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) found that at least 707 citizen journalists have been killed since March 2011 to date, with the main perpetrator being the forces of the Syrian regime19

While the government routinely depicts itself in its own propaganda as a “protector of minorities”, such as Christians; its actions on the grounds are anything but. Local NGOs have documented 124 attacks on Christian places of worship from 2011, 60% of which were carried out by government forces.20 The government also promotes anti-Semitic rhetoric in state-funded TV and Radio programming. 


“I was an atheist before the Syrian revolution. It did not affect my life in a direct way, although I was criticized by anyone who knew about my thoughts, particularly some friends and my not-close-relatives. But after the revolution the situation worsened: the Syrian militants now kill or kidnap every atheist they find. I am glad to live abroad now.”

— Leen


3 R. Yassin-Kassab and L. Al-Shami, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2016), Ch. 6.
5, 8, 9

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