The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions. On October 14, clashes erupted between Shia members of Hizballah and the Amal Movement with Christian supporters of the Lebanese Forces (LF) party in the Tayyouneh area in Beirut. Authorities arrested 68 individuals on October 25, and investigations were ongoing at year’s end. Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and unrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.
Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, continued to exercise influence over some areas, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut, parts of the Bekaa Valley, and southern areas of the country that are predominantly Shia Muslim. A paper issued by the Middle East Institute stated that as an actor ideologically tied to Iran, Hizballah has multiple allegiances and “objectives describing the organization as ‘committed simultaneously’ to the decrees of Iranian clerics, the Lebanese state, its sectarian Shia community, and fellow Shia abroad.”
On August 1, armed clashes erupted between Shia Hizballah supporters and members of the Sunni Arab tribes of Khaldeh during the funeral procession of Hizballah member Ali Chebli, who was killed the night before in an apparent vendetta shooting during a wedding. On January 27, Christian and Muslim religious leaders launched a joint appeal for the salvation of Lebanon in the face of an escalation of political, economic, and social and health crises. On December 20, religious leaders representing the Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Sunni, Shia, and Druze communities met with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his visit to the country. In a joint statement with Guterres, the leaders confirmed their commitment to openness, tolerance, and coexistence, saying that these values are at the core of faith, especially during the country’s ongoing, compounding crises. Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. The press reported that in a series of Sunday sermons throughout the year, Maronite Patriarch Rai appeared to criticize Hizballah, stressing the need to both expand the country’s policy of distancing the country from regional conflicts and maintain the current sharing of political power among the country’s religious groups.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador spoke with Christian, Shia, Sunni, and Druze religious leaders throughout the year to discuss the impact of the economic situation on different religious communities. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith programs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.3 million (midyear 2021). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations estimate the total population includes 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for more than 70 years. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East estimates there are more than 180,000 Palestinian refugees in the country.
Lebanon has not conducted an official census of its population since 1932. However, Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 64.9 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (32 percent Sunni, 31.3 percent Shia, and 1.6 percent Alawites and Ismailis combined). Statistics Lebanon further estimates 32 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group (with 52.5 percent of the Christian population), followed by Greek Orthodox (25 percent of the Christian population). Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Roman (Latin) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). According to Statistics Lebanon, 3.1 percent of the population is Druze, concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut. There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus. The Jewish Community Council, which represents the country’s Jewish community, estimates 70 Jews reside in the country.
UNHCR reports that the Syrian refugees in the country are mainly Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze. Palestinians live in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas. They are mostly the descendants of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s. Most are Sunni Muslims, but some are Christians.
UNHCR states there are approximately 10,300 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in the country. Refugees and foreign migrants from Iraq include mostly Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Chaldean Catholics. There are also Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 4,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country. According to the Syriac League, the majority of Iraqi Christian refugees are not registered with UNHCR and so are not included in its count. The Syriac League said that the population of Iraqi Christians had decreased by 70 percent since 2019, largely because of emigration driven by the country’s economic crisis.
Persons from all religious groups continued to emigrate from the country during the year, in large part due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation. There is anecdotal evidence that Christians constituted a significant portion of those who left the country, especially following the August 2020 Beirut Port explosion, with some citing fears for their security and potential treatment in an unpredictable political environment as a reason for their departure.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group. The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.
By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change. The religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI’s) Personal Status Directorate. The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.
Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed. Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials and does not change or remove the individual’s registration with the Personal Status Directorate.
The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.” It does not provide a definition of what this entails. A publications law regulates print media. The law includes provisions that impose potential fines or prison terms for sectarian provocation and prohibit the press from publishing blasphemous content regarding the country’s officially recognized religions or content that may provoke sectarian feuds.
The law governing audiovisual media bans live broadcasts of certain religious events and prohibits the broadcast of programs that seek to harm public morals, ignite sectarian strife, or insult religious beliefs. Websites are censored through court orders filed with the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF’s) Cybercrimes Bureau for further investigation, after which the bureau issues a final order to the Ministry of Telecommunications. Elements of the law permit censorship of religious material considered a threat to national security or offensive to the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders. The law includes guidelines regarding materials deemed unsuitable for publication in a book, newspaper, or magazine. Any violation of the guidelines may result in the author’s imprisonment or a fine. Officials from any of the recognized religious groups may request that the Directorate of General Security (DGS) ban a book. The government may prosecute offending journalists and publications in the publications court. Authorities occasionally also refer such cases to criminal courts, a process not established in law.
The penal code criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years for either of these offenses.
By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition. To do so, a religious group must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accordance with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution. Alternatively, a nonrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by seeking affiliation with another recognized religious group. In doing so, the nonrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies. This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.
There are 18 officially recognized religious groups: five Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic), and Jews. Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, several Protestant groups, and the Church of Jesus Christ.
Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government recognition, which also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters. By law, the government permits recognized religious to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law according to the respective religious group’s beliefs. While the religious courts and religious laws are legally bound to comply with the provisions of the constitution, the Court of Cassation, the highest civil court in the judicial system, has very limited oversight of religious court proceedings and decisions.
There are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce. The government recognizes heterosexual civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage. While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts often require the nonbelonging partner to pledge to raise his or her children in the religion of the partner and/or to relinquish certain rights, such as inheritance or custody claims, in the case of divorce
Nonrecognized religious groups may own property, assemble for worship, and perform religious rites freely. They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings, and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues. Due to agreements in the country’s confessional system that designate percentages of senior government positions, and in some cases specific positions for the recognized religious confessions, members of nonrecognized groups have no opportunity to occupy certain government positions, including cabinet, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.
The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations and representing those churches to the government.
According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may operate their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security. The government permits but does not require religious education in public schools. Both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.
The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general. It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the major religious groups. This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country). According to the pact, the President shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister shall be a Sunni Muslim. This proportional distribution also applies to high-level positions in the civil service; the judiciary, military and security institutions; and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government. Parliament is elected on equal representation between Christians and Muslims, and cabinet positions must be allocated on the same basis. Druze and Alawites are included in this allocation within Muslim communities.
The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that arrangement is neither officially spelled out in the constitution nor is it a formally binding legal agreement.
The Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates elections based on the principle of proportional representation between Muslims and Christians in parliament but reaffirms the Christian and Muslim allocation at 50 percent each. The agreement reduced the constitutional powers of the Maronite Christian presidency and increased those of the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister while also subjecting the designation of the Prime Minister to binding consultations with parliament and the designations of all ministers to a parliamentary vote of confidence.
In addition, the Taif Agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces. Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the ISF and the DGS are Sunni and Shia, respectively. Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well. While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and any change or accommodation generally must be mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.
The Taif Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation among members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession. Authorities allocate every government-recognized religion, except Ismaili Islam and Judaism, at least one seat in parliament, regardless of the number of its adherents.
By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql, its most senior religious leader. The cabinet must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries. The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges. By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.
The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month. Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel. If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Shia members of Hizballah and the Amal Movement clashed with Christian supporters of the Lebanese Forces (LF) party in Beirut’s Tayyouneh neighborhood on October 14. Seven individuals died in the confrontation and more than 30 were wounded. Violence and shooting erupted following a protest organized by Hizballah and Amal supporters to demand the dismissal of Beirut port explosion investigating Judge Tarek Bitar, whom both parties stated was biased in his investigation. The fighting took place in a neighborhood that includes both Shia and Christian residents. On October 25, Judge Fadi Akiki, the Government Commissioner to the Military Court, charged 68 individuals with various crimes in connection with the violence, including murder, attempted murder, inciting sectarian strife, sabotage, and carrying unlicensed weapons; 18 were detained and the remainder continued to evade authorities. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) intelligence directorate summoned LF leader Samir Geagea to give testimony, but he refused to do so unless Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah was also summoned. Nasrallah described the LF as the biggest threat to Christianity during a televised speech on October 16. Investigations were ongoing at year’s end.
In June 2020, the Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor of the Appeals Court pressed charges against anti-Hizballah Shia cleric Sayyed Ali al-Amine following a lawsuit filed by lawyer Ghassan al-Mawla. The lawsuit accused al-Amine of “attacking the resistance and its martyrs,” “inciting strife among sects,” “violating the legal rules of the Shia sect,” and meeting with Israeli officials in a conference in Bahrain. The court scheduled al-Amine’s hearing to begin January 15, but no further update was available at year’s end.
The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.
The DGS reviewed all films and plays released in the country during the year, although it did not ban any. NGOs again said this had more to do with the lack of film releases in the country due to prevailing economic and social circumstances rather than to any loosening of censorship. Civil society activists continued to state that the DGS’s decision-making process lacked transparency and that the opinions of religious institutions and political groups influenced it.
According to local NGOs, some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ said they registered as evangelical Protestant.
The Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites; customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script due to a national ban on trade of Israeli goods. During the year, the Jewish Community Council faced difficulty in renewing the mandate of its members, a legal requirement for groups that wish to continue to be recognized by the government, due to government officials’ unwillingness to put their signatures on any document with the group’s name on it, owing to concern this might be misinterpreted as support for Israel.
The government again failed to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israelite Communal Council (the group’s officially recognized name). Jewish community representatives reported that the MOI delayed the verification of the results of the Jewish Community Council’s election of members, which occurs every six years, with the last election taking place in February 2020. Regulations governing such councils require ministry verification of council election results. The council, which represents the interests of the country’s Jewish citizens, has repeatedly submitted requests to change its government-appointed name to reduce social stigma, without success. The council blamed its official name in part for the difficulties experienced with renewals every six years. On November 10, the Minister of Interior said that he was conducting investigations into allegations that several council members were forging signatures of nonresident Lebanese Jews to illegally acquire property. As of year’s end, the case had not been referred to the judiciary.
On September 10, Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a new government. The cabinet consisted of 24 ministers: six Maronite, five Shia, five Sunni, three Greek Orthodox, two Druze, two Greek Catholic, and one Armenian Orthodox.
Members of all confessions may serve in the military, intelligence, and security services. While most confessions had members serving in these capacities, some groups did not do so, usually because of their small number of adherents in the country. Members of the largest recognized confessions dominated the ranks of senior positions.
There were no developments during the year on the issue of civil marriage. According to NGO representatives, civil society figures cautiously engaged both Christian and Muslim leaders to assuage fears that civil marriage would pose a threat to religious leaders’ ability to administer their own confessional affairs. The MOI took no action on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that have awaited registration with the ministry since 2013.
Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and Specially Designated Global Terrorist group, continued to exercise influence over some areas, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut, Bekaa Valley, and southern areas of the country, all predominantly Shia Muslim. In those areas, Hizballah provided several basic services, such as gas, diesel, health care, education, food aid, infrastructure repair, and internal security. There continued to be reports of Hizballah controlling access to the neighborhoods and localities under its influence, including in Beirut’s southern suburbs and areas of the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon.
A July paper issued by the Middle East Institute stated that as a nonstate actor ideologically tied to Iran, Hizballah has multiple allegiances and objectives, describing the organization as “committed simultaneously to the decrees of Iranian clerics, the Lebanese state, its sectarian Shia community, and fellow Shia abroad.” The report states that the group’s “regional adventurism” is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are its advanced training regimen for other Shia militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On August 1, Shia Hizballah supporters and members of the Sunni Arab tribes of Khaldeh clashed on August 1 during the funeral procession of Hizballah member Ali Chebli, who was killed the night before in an apparent vendetta shooting during a wedding. Media reported that five individuals, including three Hizballah members, were killed. The LAF subsequently intervened and warned that it would open fire on any gunman in the area. The LAF had restored order in Khaldeh by August 2.
On January 27, Christian and Muslim religious leaders launched a joint appeal for the salvation of Lebanon in the face of an escalation of political, economic, social, and health crises. They called on political leaders to “stop toying with the destiny of the nation,” in addition to “an immediate formation of a government of national resolve without any personal or sectarian calculations.”
On July 1, Christian religious leaders gathered with Pope Francis in the Vatican for a Day of Prayer and Reflection for Lebanon.
On December 20, religious leaders representing the Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Sunni, Shia, and Druze communities met with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his visit to the country. In a joint statement with Guterres, the leaders confirmed their commitment to openness, tolerance, and coexistence, saying that these values are at the core of faith, especially during the country’s ongoing economic crisis.
The Jewish Community Council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site; it was unresolved by year’s end. The council restored and cleaned the Sidon cemetery at the end of 2019 after a municipality permit was issued to the council following several years of administrative inaction after acts of vandalism damaged the cemetery in 2018 and in previous years. During 2020, the council hired a custodian to maintain the cemetery.
The press reported that in a series of Sunday sermons, Maronite Patriarch Rai appeared to criticize Hizballah. He stressed the need to maintain the country’s neutrality beyond the current policy of distancing the country from regional conflicts and the current sharing of political power among its religious groups. Observers said they interpreted Rai’s comments as an implicit criticism of Hizballah’s support for Iran. The Patriarch also called for the disarming of militias and state control of ports and weaponry. Without mentioning them specifically, Rai singled out Shia parties’ insistence on retaining the finance ministry in any new government as being responsible for blocking government formation and for causing the country’s continuing political paralysis. On April 1, in a leaked video circulated by local media, Rai criticized Hizballah, accusing the organization of harming the country by dragging it into regional conflicts. In the video, Rai said, “I want to tell them…You want us to stay in a state of war that you decide? Are you asking us before you go to war?” The Shia Supreme Islamic Council, without naming Rai, said that comments by a “major religious leader” amounted to “sectarian incitement that stirs up bigotry and distorts the facts.”
At year’s end, approximately 70 percent of students, not including students from the refugee population, attended private schools, the majority of which were tied to religiously based organizations. These included schools that the government subsidized. The schools generally continued to accommodate students from other religious and minority groups.
According to NGOs, some refugee children and the children of foreign domestic workers faced obstacles to equal treatment under the law. They reported discrimination that included bullying linked to race, skin color, religion, and nationality. However, some of these children were able to attend public schools.
In an interview that aired on January 27 on OTV, Faris Bouez, a former foreign minister, said that the new Biden administration would not change U.S. policy, saying, “Ten of [Biden’s] aides, secretaries, and heads of intelligence agencies are Jews. So nobody should delude himself that we won anything by the rise of Biden. Israel holds American political life with an iron fist. An iron fist!” Bouez stated, “Back in his day, Benjamin Franklin delivered a speech in the U.S. Congress and warned America that the Jews ‘will make our children starve, they will eat our children, and we should prevent them from being [here],’” and he said that money, universities, and the media in the United States were under the complete control of Israel.
Lebanese researcher Rafic Nasrallah recounted an antisemitic story to explain the “truth” behind the August 2020 Port of Beirut explosion on a television program that aired on September 24. The host of the show said that “nobody rules out the theory” that Israel bombed the port, but that the Lebanese people deserve to know the truth behind the events. In response, Nasrallah recounted the story of a 19th century Christian priest who was supposedly kidnapped by Jews, saying his blood was used “for something.” He said, “Whenever there are scandals related to these things, the truth is gone.”
In a January 29 interview on Mayadeen TV, Asad al-Sahmarani, a theology professor at Imam al-Ouzai University in Beirut, said that the “Abrahamic Family House,” an interfaith prayer complex for Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the UAE and sponsored by the government of Abu Dhabi, contradicted both Islam and Christianity. He said that this project would end in the garbage bin of history and added that the New Testament describes Israelites as a “brood of vipers” and the Quran says that God turned Jews into apes and pigs.
The UAE research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported that 17 percent of Lebanese respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, which was lower than the regionwide result of 34 percent. Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss their views, including on relations with other religious groups, and to promote religious tolerance.
The Ambassador met on multiple occasions throughout the year with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism related to religious belief. Embassy officers often met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages.
During the year, the embassy continued to raise with the MOI the delays that the Jewish Community Council faced on the confirmation of its registration. The embassy amplified messages of religious tolerance through its social media accounts.
For the past seven years, the embassy assisted 12 faith-based organizations affiliated with Sunni, Druze, Alawite, Chaldean, Maronite, Catholic, and Protestant religious groups to build their organizational capacity and improve their financial management capabilities, internal administrative systems, and governance structures to better support their communities.
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, although the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the President of the republic.” The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation, and the law prohibits conversion from Islam. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable with imprisonment or death. Sectarian violence continued during the year due to tensions among religious groups that, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media sources, was exacerbated by government actions, the deterioration of the economy, and the broader ongoing conflict in the country. At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced, including 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and approximately 5.6 million refugees. Government and progovernment forces continued aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 in the northwest of the country, killing civilians and forcing the additional displacement of more than 11,000 people. The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, was reported to have continued to commit human rights abuses and violations against its perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims and whom the government described as violent extremists. There also continued to be reports that the government, with its foreign supporters, continued to engage in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported at least 972 cases of arbitrary detentions during the first half of the year and documented at least 150,049 Syrians who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and November 2021, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad government and remained missing. The government continued to use Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country designated for reconstruction, to reward those loyal to the government and to create obstacles for refugees and IDPs who wished to reclaim their property or return to their homes; in line with the demographics of the country, this move impacted the majority Sunni population more frequently than other groups. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military, security, and intelligence services. Some researchers and media stated that under the Assad government, sectarianism and the advancement of the Alawite minority had become more entrenched, disenfranchising non-Alawite Muslims, as well as Christians, Druze, and members of other religious minority groups; others said political access remained primarily a function of proximity and loyalty to the regime.
In March, Foreign Policy reported Iran used its influence, the dire economic situation in Syria, and financial incentives to encourage Sunnis to convert to Shia Islam or join Iranian militias. The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) again reported it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses, including torture, rape, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control. The COI, human rights groups, and media organizations reported killings, arbitrary detentions, rape, and torture of civilians, and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Afrin. Community representatives, human rights organizations such as the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation-gathering groups reported Yezidis were often victims of TSO abuses. The COI found that despite its territorial defeat, violent attacks by ISIS remnants had increased, while human rights organizations stated that ISIS often targeted civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups ISIS deemed to be apostates. Many former victims of ISIS remained missing.
Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups. NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly.
The President of the United States and senior Department of State officials continued to state that a political solution to the conflict must be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and respect for the human rights of the country’s citizens. The Secretary of State and Department of State officials continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the human rights and religious freedom of all citizens. It continued to support the evidentiary-gathering work of UN bodies and NGOs to promote accountability for the atrocities committed by the government and others. In July, the United States imposed sanctions on eight Syrian prisons, five Assad regime officials in the institutions that run those facilities, two militia groups, and two militia leaders implicated in human rights abuses. In December, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior Syrian Air Force officers responsible for chemical weapons attacks on civilians in 2017 and 2018 and three senior officers in the security and intelligence apparatus for human rights abuses.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 20.4 million (midyear 2021). At year’s end, according to the UN, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced; there were approximately 5.6 million refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries as well as 6.6 million IDPs. Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. Other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.
The U.S. government estimates 10 percent of the population is Christian. However, there are reports that indicate that number is considerably lower – approximately 2.5 percent. Of the 2.2 million Christians who lived in the country prior to the war, the NGO Open Doors USA estimates that only approximately 677,000 remain. According to the Catholic news site Asia News, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, a party linked to the Self Administration of North and East Syria in the northeast, reported two-thirds of the country’s Christians have fled Syria since 2011. In a paper published by the think tank Middle East Institute, a researcher noted, however, “War and displacement have… played havoc with those figures over the last 10 years.”
Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, but in 2020, the Jewish Chronicle reported that there were no known Jews still living in the country. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war. There are no updated figures on the number of Yezidis currently living in the country
Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country. Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Governates, although Iranian-backed groups along the Middle Euphrates River valley have encouraged conversions. Twelver Shia Muslims generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. Most Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also live in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus. The highest concentration of Ismaili Muslims live in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.
Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox Churches such as the Syria Orthodox Church, Eastern Catholic Churches such as the Maronite Church, or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian Churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Sweida Governorate, where they constitute a majority of the local population. Yezidis previously lived in Aleppo, but now live mainly in northeast Syria areas controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in those areas, there is often a breakdown in law and order, leaving militias, often predominantly composed of a single religious group, in a dominant position. In other areas of the country, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.
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 public order. There is no official state religion, although the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the President of the republic.” The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.
The constitution states, “The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected” and “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it violated their rights. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case being decided.
According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government loosely associates with Sunni fundamentalism. Neither the government broadly nor the state security court has specifically defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity. The law prohibits political parties based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests. Affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.
The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”
The law restricts proselytizing and conversion. It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to sharia. The law recognizes conversion to Islam. The penal code prohibits causing tension between religious communities.
The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.” The Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf) must approve books imported from abroad. Television shows require the approval of religious authorities.
By law, all religious groups must register with the government. Registered religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.
The law regulates the structure and functions of the Awqaf. The law provides for a Council of Islamic Jurisprudence with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist thought or deviate from approved discourse. The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.” The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight of the country’s religious affairs.
On November 15, President Bashar al-Assad issued legislative decree No. 28 for 2021, expanding the role and authorities of the Islamic Jurisprudence Council to include those previously relegated to the Grand Mufti, the highest Islamic authority in the country, whose position was also eliminated under the same decree. The council will consist of 40 scholars and will be chaired by the Minister of Endowment. Its tasks will include setting the start and end dates of the month of Ramadan and declaring fatwas.
All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.
Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes the Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools. There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula. Religious instruction covers only Islam and Christianity, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Members of religious groups may choose to attend public schools with Islamic or Christian instruction or to attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.
For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation. Individuals are subject to their respective religious group’s laws concerning marriage and divorce. Per the personal status code, a Muslim man may legally marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam and may not inherit any property or wealth from her husband, even if she converts. The law states that if a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.
The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges. In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence. A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce. In addition, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.
The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.
An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation. Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant. Jews are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.
Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state. The law makes no provision to accommodate refugees and IDPs.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to UN, press, and NGO reporting, the government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit indiscriminate human rights abuses and violations against civilians, as well as participate in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. These sources stated that the government continued its widespread use of unlawful killings, attacks on civilians and civilian sites, including homes and hospitals, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and confiscation of property to punish perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims. On September 24, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council that from March 2011 to March 2021, more than 350,000 identifiable individuals had been killed in the course of the conflict in the country. The commissioner noted that the figure indicated “a minimum verifiable number,” and that it was “certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.” Other groups attributed more than 550,000 killings to the conflict. This discrepancy was largely due to the high number of missing and disappeared Syrians, whose fates remained unknown at year’s end.
Some opposition groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Muslim in statements and publications. Sources stated that political access was primarily a function of proximity and loyalty to the regime, not sectarian identity. According to the NGO Freedom House, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and members of other religious minorities considered to be outside of the regime’s inner circle were “politically disenfranchised along with the rest of the population.” Freedom House stated although the political elite included Sunnis, the Sunni majority, which comprised the bulk of the opposition, bore “the brunt of state repression as a result” of this broader disenfranchisement.
The government continued to target those within the country who criticized or opposed the government, the majority of whom were Sunni and whom the government described as violent extremists. There were continued NGO and media reports that in its efforts to retake opposition-held areas, the government targeted civilian centers in towns and neighborhoods, which, due to prevailing demographics, were inhabited by a majority Sunni population. In June, regime forces, supported by pro-regime militias, broke the Russian-brokered ceasefire negotiated in 2018 and besieged and shelled the city of Daraa al-Balad, an area with a Sunni majority population. The attack came after Daraa al-Balad residents protested in May against the presidential election. According to NGO and media reports, the regime’s ground military operation resulted in civilian casualties; damage to civilian infrastructure, including the only medical facility in the city; forced displacement; and acute food and medicine shortages. Following the clashes, the regime demanded the expulsion and relocation of several perceived opponents. According to UN estimates, approximately 38,600 persons fled Daraa al-Balad as a result of the fighting. From June to August, according to press and NGOs, the regime blocked humanitarian access to the affected areas and communities. In its August report, the COI found that pro-regime forces’ use of siege-like tactics may have amounted to the war crime of collective punishment.
The SNHR documented at least 1,279 attacks on mosques in the country between March 2011 and November 2021, attributing 914 attacks to the regime and 204 attacks to Russian forces. The SNHR also documented at least 126 attacks on Christian places of worship during the same time period, attributing 76 attacks to the regime, 33 to armed opposition groups, 10 to ISIS, five to other parties, and two to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The SNHR reported at least 972 arbitrary detentions during the first half of the year and documented at least 150,000 individuals who were detained or forcibly disappeared between March 2011 and November 2021, approximately 88 percent of whom SNHR estimated were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing. These included perceived opponents and those associated with human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, and medical providers. According to the SNHR, from March 2011 to September 2021, more than 14,580 persons died from torture in government custody. Government forces were reportedly responsible for at least 78 deaths by torture during the year. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, most were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition or likely to support the opposition.
According to a June Freedom House Report, corruption was rampant and basic state services and humanitarian aid were reportedly extended or withheld according to a recipient’s perceived loyalty to the Assad regime. Freedom House also stated individuals living in government-held territory who criticized or sought to expose corruption faced reprisals, including detention and dismissal from employment. The press reported the kidnapping of an 88-year-old Greek Orthodox merchant, Nazih Shehadeh, from his home in the Druze majority city of al-Suwayda in June. Syrian-born al-Jazeera journalist Faisal al-Qasim said that Shehadeh’s abduction followed his refusal to participate in the May 26 presidential election. After angry reactions from the city’s population, local news outlets, without clarifying details of his detention or release, reported that Shehadeh returned home.
Analysts reported the government continued to use Law No. 10 of 2018 to reward those loyal to the government and to create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to reclaim their property and return to their homes. According to NGO reports, since the law’s enactment, the government had replaced residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies. These government policies disproportionately affected Sunni populations, which made up the majority of the population. According to SNHR, seizing the property of regime opponents was part of the regime’s strategy of forced displacement to “engineer the demographic and social structure of the Syrian state [in a manner] that automatically constitutes a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs.”
According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers. It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.
Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.
There continued to be Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population. During the 2020 parliamentary elections, the number of Sunni members of the 250-seat Parliament increased to 169 from 165 in 2016, while the number of Christians dropped from 22 to 18. The number of Druze dropped from nine to eight. The Middle East Institute stated these changes “were not large enough to signal any major shift in the regime’s policy towards these religious groups.”
Some media articles challenged the depiction of the country and the government as religiously tolerant and secular. A paper published by the Middle East Institute on April 12 stated, “The ultimate irony is that within so-called secular Syria as represented by the nominally secular Ba’ath Party, in power under the Assads for the last 50 years, sectarianism has been consistently on the rise… Before the Assads, religious identities were pluralistic, and were only relevant at the social level. They were not politicized or institutionalized.” In a February 8 article published by the New Lines Institute, a Syrian researcher wrote, “The regime was never truly secular. It has instrumentalized religion in order to further tear apart society and deepen the sectarian abyss.” A report released in June by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, a London-based NGO focusing on international humanitarian law and human rights, entitled In the Name of Protection: Minorities and identity in the Syrian conflict stated, “The weaponization of religion and sect is far-reaching in the Syrian political landscape… The melding of Alawi religious symbols, imagery and other aspects of Alawi identity in state security agencies… is one example of how representations of Alawi identity have been hijacked to merge with the state.”
In its June report In the Name of Protection, the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights said the ruling Ba’ath party had “curated a narrative portraying itself as the protector and defender of religious minorities.” The NGO stated the regime had “both co-opted Syrian religious minorities, regardless of their own political views, and demonised millions of Sunni protestors, in rhetoric that dismissed them as ‘terrorists’ rather than citizens seeking political, economic, and social justice. Sectarian state rhetoric has therefore contributed to deepened fissures between different religious communities.”
According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military, security, and intelligence services, although the senior officer corps of the military continued to accept into its ranks individuals from other religious minority groups. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.
In June, Freedom House reported that families and networks with links to the ruling elite received preferential treatment and were disproportionately Alawite, although “Alawites without such connections [were] far less likely to benefit from any special advantages.” The report also found that given the armed opposition’s overwhelmingly Sunni composition, Sunnis were consequently likely to face discrimination by the regime unless they held close ties with it.
According to an analysis released September 24 by the Middle East Institute, the government was increasingly reliant upon the army’s Fourth Division, commanded by the President’s brother Maher al-Assad. According to the analysis, Alawites constitute approximately 95 percent of the Fourth Division’s officers and regular soldiers. During the year, the Fourth Division deployed throughout the country, often with support from Iran and Hizballah, because of a growing lack of confidence in regular army forces and a considerable number of defections by Sunni officers in the rest of the army. During the summer, the unit, supported by pro-Iranian militias, led the attack on Daraa al-Balad, an area which, due to prevailing demographics, had a Sunni majority population.
According to the British-based NGO CSW, on February 14, the Ministry of Justice rejected the Yezidi community’s request to recognize it as a religious group, which would allow Yezidis to establish their own personal status courts. The Council for Syrian Yezidis issued a statement describing the decision as “a flagrant violation of basic human rights.”
Antisemitic literature reportedly remained available for purchase at low prices throughout the country. Government-controlled radio and television programming reportedly continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.
On January 15, in a Friday sermon at Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque that aired on state-run Nour al-Sham TV, Mohammed Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti, the mosque’s government-appointed imam, spoke about the “filthy history” of the Jews. In his sermon, al-Bouti said that the Jews offended Moses and killed John the Baptist and other prophets, becoming known as the “slayers of prophets” whose history is one “of treachery and betrayal.” Al-Bouti stated that Jews were “inciting strife and wars” and “spreading moral depravity, debauchery, and licentiousness.”
In January, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the Center for Jewish Art announced they had collaborated to identify “important Jewish heritage sites” in Europe, Iraq, and Syria to be added to Western military protection lists. In 2020, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage reported that more than half of the Jewish sites it had identified in Syria were beyond repair or in very bad condition.
The national school curriculum did not include materials on religious tolerance or the Holocaust.
The government continued to allow foreign Christian NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering. It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive Awqaf approval to operate. Security forces continued to question these Islamic organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.
There continued to be reports that the Iranian government, primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, directly supported the Assad government and recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters, as well as Syrians, to fight in the conflict. In March, Foreign Policy reported that Iran used its influence, the dire economic situation in the country and financial incentives to encourage Sunnis to convert to Shia Islam or join Iranian militias. In March, the NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Iranian forces invited residents in a town in Deir Ezzour to attend a course on the doctrines of Shia Islam at the local Iranian Cultural Center, offering approximately $200 and a food basket to those who passed the course. SyriacPress.com reported that Hizballah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, offered new recruits in Deir Ezzour a monthly salary of $150 to enlist. According to the March Foreign Policy report, Iran restored and built new shrines “almost as if trying to rewrite the religious history of Syria, which is majority-Sunni and had a very small Shia population before the war.” Experts reported that the “demographic and cultural penetration” was aimed at increasing the number of Shia in the country to allow Iran to “claim political power on their behalf.”
According to human rights organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation gathering groups, TSOs in the northern part of the country committed human rights abuses against Yezidi residents and other residents, particularly in Kurdish areas, including arbitrary detentions of civilians, torture, sexual violence, evictions, looting and seizure of private property, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. TSOs also reportedly abused members of other religious minority groups.
In areas under Turkish influence, TSO groups operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) restricted religious freedom of Yezidis through attacks against and intimidation of civilians. A January COI report noted that the commission had documented the looting and destruction of archeological sites and Yezidi shrines and graves by the SNA in Afrin. Speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on August 10, a Voice of America (VOA) correspondent stated that local human rights groups documented abuses and violations against residents of Afrin, mainly against Yezidis, including kidnappings for ransom; imprisonment; torture; the imposition of a “protection fee” on some villages; the destruction of Yezidi shrines and graves; and the looting and confiscation of land and property.
According to the COI, abductions and extortions rose in regions where hostilities between TSOs and government forces had created a security vacuum. In March, CSW reported the release of Radwan Mohammed, a Kurdish Christian headmaster abducted in 2020 by a TSO, Failaq al-Sham (the Legion of the Levant), in Afrin after he refused to convert his school into an Islamic educational center. The group also prevented Mohammed and his family from washing and shrouding the body of his wife, who had died prior to his detention. Both Mohammed and his wife were converts from Islam to Christianity, and Failaq al-Sham had charged him with apostasy.
Members of religious and ethnic minority groups, especially displaced Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, in areas under Turkish influence, such as in the city of Afrin, reported experiencing human rights abuses and marginalization. In an August post on a Wilson Center blog, a VOA journalist stated that according to human rights groups, of 25,000 Yezidis who lived in 22 villages in Afrin before the 2018 Turkish incursion, just 5,000 remained. In September, VOA reported Christian leaders said Turkish shelling in northeast Syria during the year had driven Christians and other minorities from their homes in Tel Tamer and surrounding villages southeast of the Operation Peace Spring area. According to press reports and NGOs, in Afrin, Yezidi women reported to have been kidnapped by TSOs remained missing.
The COI and numerous independent sources reported that during the course of the conflict, nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations, the United States, and other governments, such as HTS, targeted members of religious minority groups as well as Sunnis with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and detentions. These resulted in the deaths and disappearance of thousands of civilians. According to a COI report released in February that covered the period from 2011 to the end of 2020, throughout areas under its control, HTS “caused severe psychological and physical harm to women, girls, men and boys, by imposing religious dress codes and, in the case of women and girls, denying their freedom of movement without a male relative… Unauthorized ‘courts’ established by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and various armed groups imposed death sentences that amounted to the war crime of murder and were used to impose such groups’ draconian social strictures…”
Media reported that HTS continued to restrict the freedom of Christians in Idlib city. According to a June report published by the Middle East Institute, HTS seized hundreds of properties belonging to displaced Christians, including at least 550 homes and shops in Idlib Governate, between late 2018 and late 2019.
The COI found that despite its territorial defeat, violent attacks by ISIS remnants had increased. Human rights organizations stated ISIS often targeted civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. According to the COI’s February report, “The stoning of women and girls on charges of adultery and the executions of homosexuals were also recurrent in areas under ISIL control, as were forced marriages to fighters.”
Although ISIS no longer controlled territory, the fate of 8,648 individuals forcibly disappeared by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, whom ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. In a September 14 letter to the UN General Assembly, the Yezidi advocacy organization Yazda and more than 80 other signatories stated that 2,763 individuals remained unaccounted for. Yazda reported that more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children had escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from ISIS captivity since the start of the conflict, but that more than 2,700 remained unaccounted for at year’s end.
In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized detention centers emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Throughout the year there were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, cultural rivalries, and provocative rhetoric. Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups.
Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly.
The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the opposition’s primary political umbrella organization, and the Syrian Negotiations Committee, an opposition organization responsible for negotiating with the government on behalf of the opposition, continued to condemn attacks both by the government and by extremist and terrorist groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On May 6, the President condemned the Assad government’s “brutal violence and human rights violations and abuses.” The President and senior Department of State officials continued to stress the need for a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that such a solution should establish credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance.
The Department of State continued to support the work of the UN International Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) as an important evidentiary-gathering mechanism to promote accountability for the atrocities committed by the government and others. As of year’s end, the United States had provided $3.5 million to the IIIM since its creation, as well as awarded $5.9 million to the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support its efforts to gather evidence of ISIS crimes, including atrocities against members of Muslim, Yezidi, and Christian communities. The Department of State also continued to support NGOs working to collect and preserve evidence of potential crimes.
The U.S. government consistently urged Turkey and the Syrian opposition at the highest levels to comply with their obligations under international law in areas that they or groups they supported controlled or operated.
The Secretary of State and Department of State officials continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the moderate opposition, and the international community to support a UN-facilitated political resolution to the conflict led by the Syrian people that would safeguard religious freedom for all citizens. These efforts included support for the Constitutional Committee tasked with drafting an amended or new constitution meant to represent the Syrian people as part of the UN-facilitated political process.
The U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012. U.S. government representatives continued to meet with religious groups and leaders in the United States and elsewhere in the Middle East region. A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and other Department of State officials participated in virtual dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on accountability and justice efforts, and countering extremist violence. The acting U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement hosted a virtual panel discussion in March on accountability for human rights abuses, including those committed against members of religious minority groups.
The United States continued to support the documentation, analysis, and preservation of evidence of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict, including those committed against members of religious minority groups, through the COI and IIIM, as well as through direct support for Syrian-led documentation efforts.
On July 28, the United States imposed sanctions on eight Syrian prisons, five Assad regime officials in the institutions that run those facilities, and two militia leaders implicated in human rights abuses. The United States also imposed sanctions on Saraya al-Areen (Brigades of the Den), a regime-affiliated militia that participated in the regime’s 2020 offensive operation to regain control of Idlib Governate. That offensive contributed to the mass displacement of civilians. The sanctions also targeted the TSO Ahrar al-Sharqiya (Free Men of the East) for the commission of serious human rights abuses, including murder, abduction, and torture.
On December 7, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, imposed sanctions on senior Syrian Air Force officers Muhammad Youssef al-Hasouri and Tawfiq Muhammad Khadour for their responsibility for chemical weapons attacks on civilians in 2017 and 2018, respectively. OFAC also sanctioned Adeeb Namer Salameh, Assistant Director of Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI), senior SAFI officer Qahtan Khalil, and senior Syrian Military Intelligence official Kamal al-Hassan for human rights abuses committed against civilians.