Syria was administered by the French until independence in 1946. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Syria lost the Golan Heights in the south, to neighbouring Israel. Negotiations over the snow-capped mountain range continue to this day.
Syria’s capital city is Damascus and the official language is Arabic.
For four decades Syria has been ruled by the authoritarian governments of President Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, before him. Opposition parties to the President’s National Progressive Front are not recognised and Syria’s constitution, Article 8, allows it to intervene at will in state institutions of all natures. Legislation follows Shari’a law.
When popular movements demanding greater democracy swept across the the Middle East in 2011, Syrian protesters called for an end to emergency laws in place since 1963, as well as the institution of a multi-party system and a campaign against corruption.
But the government’s brutal crackdowns on protesters provoked calls for President Assad to step down and intensified the opposition. Peaceful protests turned to armed conflict, accelerated by the defection of members of the army to form the Free Syrian Army until, in July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared the country to be in a state of civil war.
The conflict soon became a sectarian conflict between the Sunni Muslim majority and President Bashar al-Assad and his government, who are Shia Muslims from the Alawite sect. This religious element has been further heightened by the rise of extremist Islamic militants, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, and, latterly, Islamic State (IS). These have increasingly ‘Islamised’ the conflict: more and more, the civil war has taken the form of a jihad against the Syrian government.
Syria’s economy is heavily controlled by the government and relies on Syria’s petroleum resources for much of the country’s wealth. Before the outbreak of civil war, the country was already battling an increasing unemployment rate, currently 14.9% (2011 estimate),1 as a result of an ever-growing population, declining oil prices and production. Most resources and industries have remained nationalised since the 1960s, with heavy government subsidisation in various sectors and widespread corruption.
Since 2011 more than half the pre-war population of Syria (22 million) have left their homes; 7.6 million are internally displaced within the country and 4.6 million are refugees. Most of the refugees are in the surrounding countries: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Over 300,000 Syrians left the region and fled to places such as Europe (some 210,000 in 2015 and almost 80,000 in 2014) or North America (10,000 in Canada and 10,000 in the USA by the end of 2015).
Syria’s human rights record is generally considered poor, with those who criticize the government at risk of arrest, unfair trial and imprisonment, being banned from travelling abroad and from working in the public sector.
As in other parts of the region, women are subject to gender-based discrimination and violence, particularly so-called “honour” killings. Laws assigning lower status to women compared to men are in force and reinforced by social customs.
The average adult literacy rate in Syria is 82%, as revealed by a 2006 report.2
The state operates two television networks and a satellite channel, as well as three radio channels. The first private radio channel was opened in 2005, but is not allowed to broadcast any news or political content. Of a 22 million population, 4 million have regular access to the internet.3 The government also operates all the newspapers.
Syria’s population is 74% Sunni Muslim, with 16% practising other sects of Islam, and a 10% Christian minority.4 Although there is no state religion, the constitution stipulates that the President must be Muslim.
There are frequent disruptions of church services, owing to the prohibition of assembly by law, but, until recently, Christians living in Syria have claimed that they are largely tolerated by the government and allowed to worship freely, but discreetly.
There is strong evidence that Syria’s fast-escalating civil unrest and conflict is increasingly dividing on sectarian fault-lines, with the opposition being drawn from the majority Sunni population and the government and state-sponsored militias drawn from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Brutal mass killings have triggered fears of a bloodbath as the conflict continues.
Christians have been caught in the crossfire between the two groups and have been especially vulnerable due to their traditional support for the government which has afforded it some protection. A minority itself, the government has never overtly persecuted Christians and has allowed them relative freedom to worship. Some groups within the opposition called on Christians to leave the country and some, mostly foreign, Jihadist groups have targeted them. However, numbers of Christians also joined anti-government, pro-reform protests.
- Pray for an end to the civil war and against the increased brutality and destruction.
- Pray for those struggling to survive amidst broken water supplies, rocketing food and fuel prices and without access to medical care.
- Pray for Christians doing all they can with limited resources to support people enduring or fleeing the conflict.
- Pray that other nations will only act to promote peace and justice for all of Syria’s people rather than seek to destabilise Syria or prolong the conflict for their own ends.
- Pray for continued protection and tolerance of Christians in Syria and that Syria will allow freedom of religion for all minorities.
- Pray for Iraqi refugees displaced a second time by conflict in Syria and for the huge numbers of Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries which are ill-equipped to cope with the unprecedented numbers.
1 CIA World Factbook
3 CIA World Factbook
4 CIA World Factbook