There were reports of killing, imprisonment, detention, and the intentional destruction of property on the basis of religion. Human rights organizations estimated that more than 130,000 have perished since the start of the conflict. As the conflict devolved further into civil war, the government increased its attacks against members of religious groups it deemed a threat, using the “extremist” label to target members of these groups and those suspected of harboring them, particularly among members of the country’s Sunni majority. The government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, maintaining that opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists bent on eliminating Syria’s religious minority groups. Government religious officials called on Syrians to engage in jihad in support of the regime, and government forces damaged or destroyed many religious sites. The government continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups and to discourage proselytizing. 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 participation or cooperation with anti-regime “extremists,” broadly defining this category to include anyone suspected of disloyalty to the regime. As religious affiliation was seen as a determinant of regime loyalty, 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 bombardments on the basis of the religious affiliation of residents in those locations. For example, on February 22, the regime bombarded the predominantly Sunni neighborhoods of Ard al Hamra and Tariq al Bab in Aleppo, killing at least 91 civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. In May pro-regime and government forces killed up to 450 Sunni civilians in the towns of Banyas and Bayda in Tartus Governorate. The UN also reported that government and Hezbollah forces killed as many as 450 individuals, half of whom were civilians, during their siege of the predominantly Sunni town of Qusayr. The government cut residents off from food and water during the siege, which lasted three weeks in May and June. The regime also reportedly staged military strikes from villages and towns with specific religious demographics in order to bolster its sectarian narrative.
The government undertook judicial prosecution primarily against individuals perceived as constituting a political threat to the country’s secular system and the survival of the regime.
Human rights groups reported that many of the accused were targeted for being 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 makeups. The government rarely furnished documentation on the number arrested; however, observers noted the government had detained tens of thousands of citizens since the unrest began. Almost none of the detained were provided due process.
The government also carried out extrajudicial punishments against those defined as religious extremists, particularly targeting Sunni clerics, according to human rights groups. In June the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported that since the start of the conflict, there were at least 15 documented deaths of Sunni clerics while in regime custody. It reported a total of 48 Sunni clerics killed since the start of the conflict.
The government increased the number of imprisonments and summary executions of individuals it deemed to be associated with opposition radio and television programming, including religious programming that did not meet government criteria.
There were credible reports the government targeted religious sites, predominantly Sunni mosques. In June SNHR reported the government partially or completely destroyed more than 1,450 mosques since the start of the conflict. In some cases, the mosques were reportedly targeted because they served as rallying points for protesters.
In late March there were reports that the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus was damaged. The Syrian army and opposition forces blamed each other.
The government also destroyed a number of Christian sites. In September SNHR issued a report documenting government shelling of at least 33 Christian churches, some on multiple occasions, and accusing government forces of using churches as barracks for military forces.
Government security services monitored all groups, religious and nonreligious, as well as individuals, but particularly those it considered a threat to the regime. 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. 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 government-sanctioned forms of Islam.
The government allowed foreign Christian faith-based NGOs such as the Jesuit Refugee Service to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches but 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 prohibited religious leaders from serving as the directors of boards for Islamic charities. This was a sharp policy change; traditionally, clerics headed nearly all Islamic charities in the country.
The government continued to prosecute and harass those suspected of proselytizing, with reported cases of government surveillance of and fines imposed on Christian and Sunni organizations. Most charges carried sentences of imprisonment from five years to life; in the past, these had been reduced to one or two years.
Stated policy disavowed sectarianism of any kind, although the government directly employed sectarianism in practice. The regime continued its widespread marketing campaign against fitna, or sectarian strife, while simultaneously attributing opposition violence to religious extremists and terrorists. In May the Dar al-Ifta Council headed by Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun issued a religious decree deeming “defense and jihad” for the regime “a national and a religious duty.” Opposition figures continued to accuse the authorities of systematically using sectarian fear as a strategy to counter anti-government demonstrations.
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 complained about growing limitations on their influence and positions in the government.
The government continued to sponsor anti-Israeli media coverage and rhetoric, and the media continued to disseminate anti-Semitic material through radio and television programming, news articles, cartoons, and other mass media. The grand mufti (a government-appointed position), Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, issued multiple public statements alleging that attempts to fragment the region along sectarian lines were “designed to serve the Zionist entity in the region.”