The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death. There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim. According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most extreme elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously moderate government was facing a religiously extremist opposition. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including a chemical weapons attack in April resulting in mostly Sunni causalities. The government reportedly damaged and destroyed places of worship, including 63 churches and numerous mosques. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its control by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayers, and limit the activities of religious groups, and said the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.
The UN Human Rights Council and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled. Two explosions in March near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, a well-known Shia pilgrimage site, killed 44 civilians and injured 120, the majority of whom were Iraqi Shia pilgrims. HTS claimed responsibility for the attack. Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of Syrian territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilians through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings of men, women, and children on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God. In addition, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), ISIS’s continued executions of those perceived to violate its strict religious rules applied to women accused of adultery and men accused of sodomy. Moreover, ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.” While many Yezidi women were liberated when Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing. ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress. ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution. It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities. HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology including through schools and youth training camps.
There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other minority groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers. Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence including kidnappings at the hands of violent extremist groups. Neighborhoods, towns, and villages once religiously diverse were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.
The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in Syria leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. On August 15, the Secretary of State stated ISIS was responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, as well as for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities. Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Security for the Levant, the Representative for Syria, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.