According to CIA World Factbook, 87% of Syrians are Muslim, the majority being Sunni Muslims (74%). A further 13% are Shi’a Muslims, following the Alawite (11%), Ismaili (1%) or Twelver Imami (0.5%) sects. Christians make up an additional 10% of the population with the remaining 3% being a combination of Druze, Jews and atheists.
Besides contributing to one’s personal identity, religion is not a strong culturally defining feature in Syria. People generally have a lot of freedom to determine their personal levels of religious practice and devotion. Even within households, family members’ religious observance may vary a lot. However, conversion out of the faith one was born into is rare. Devout Muslims in Syria may pray five times a day privately. This is often practiced flexibly and prayer may be postponed if it’s inconvenient.
Syria has a history of religious tolerance. In cities, Jewish synagogues, numerous Christian churches, and some of the world’s oldest Muslim mosques exist as ancient reminders of this peaceful coexistence. Today, one’s religious background is given consideration in family law and both Muslim and Christian state holidays are followed. Schools provide separate religious education for people of different faiths, though Sunni and Shi’a Muslims are often taught together.
The Alawite (or Alawi) sect is a variation of Shi’a Islam and the largest religious minority in Syria. Its followers are mostly concentrated in one specific region of Syria – that being the coast and its surrounding towns. The sect does not require its followers to practice basic Muslim ritual duties (the Five Pillars). One must be initiated into the sect for full beliefs of the religion to be disclosed.
The public accounts and perspectives of Alawites in Syria are generally partisan (either quite positive or negative). Power has been held by an Alawite family for almost 50 years. The current president of Syria—Bashar al-Assad—and his late father’s authoritarian rule has been widely regarded as oppressive and subjugating. The Assad family’s preference has been to favour the Alawite sect and recruit the majority of state security roles and the army from fellow Alawites to ensure support. Many Syrians resent the Alawites for their involvement and support of the regime. Others feel pity for them as only about 10% of Alawites are in a position of power, while the remainder are mostly uneducated and live in poverty. Around a third of Alawite young men have been killed in the Syrian Civil War.
The Druze faith is monotheistic religion that combines beliefs of the Abrahamic faiths - Islam, Judaism and Christianity. However, it varies from conventional Islam in that it does not follow the practice of the Five Pillars of Islam. Druze people do not fast during Ramadan or necessarily make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and they also incorporate some different philosophical elements into their beliefs.
The Druze generally live on the south-west border of Syria, near Jordan. They consider themselves descendant of a select group of inaugurated people. Therefore, one is born into the religion and traditionally no conversion is allowed in or out of the faith. They have not proselytised since the 11th century, and the religion remains closed to outsiders. Historically, the Druze tried to protect their religion by living in isolated communities or praying as Sunni Muslims or Christians to blend in. However, this secrecy and caution of the religion’s sanctity is dissipating in contemporary Syria. Many Druze have been speaking out against Assad’s regime and have suffered or died as a consequence.
Syrians in Australia
The 2011 census recorded the major religious affiliation amongst Syrian-born people in Australia as Christianity (43.1%), including Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox variations. 35.2% identified as Muslim while 3.1% stated that they were unaffiliated to any religion. 3.8% did not respond.