Guide: Syria's diverse minorities

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Syrian Christian priests in Damascus
Image caption,
Christians have enjoyed religious freedom in Syria but face an uncertain future

The anti-government uprising in Syria is widely understood to be staged and supported by members of the majority Sunni Muslim population, with lesser representation from other religions.

There is a fear that the unrest - which began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring' uprisings across the Middle East - could lead to ethnic and religious polarisation, with different groups having to choose sides.

Sunni Muslims comprise about 75% of the population, with the remainder split between Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis. Official Syrian censuses don't cover religion or ethnicity, making it difficult to gain an accurate break-down of society.


Kurds make up the largest ethnic minority in Syria, constituting somewhere between 10% and 15% of the population, or about 2 million out of a population of around 22 million. The most concentrated Kurdish populations are in the north and north-eastern parts, particularly Hasaka province and the town of Qamishli on the Turkish border.

In neighbouring Turkey Kurds are a marginalised minority, and in Iraq Kurds suffered under the rule of ousted president Saddam Hussein but now enjoy a large degree of regional autonomy.

Many Syrian Kurds consider themselves victims of discrimination, accusing the Syrian authorities of denying them their basic social, cultural and political rights. Tens of thousands have been stateless since changes to Syria's nationality laws in the 1960s, but the government appears to be rectifying this now - to keep Kurds on-side, some observers say.

Kurdish political activity is severely repressed and Syrian military courts regularly jail Kurdish activists. The Kurdish Popular Union Party, which campaigns for self-determination for Syrian Kurds and is one of the oldest Syrian Kurdish parties, is banned.

Syrian Kurds appear divided over whether to back the protest movements or support the authorities in the hope of improving their status.

There is Kurdish representation in opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group which was formed in August 2011 and seeks regime change.

A separate Kurdish entity called the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) was formed in October 2011. Comprising 10 Kurdish parties, the KNC says it is committed to "finding a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue", emphasising that it is "part of the revolution". A Kurdish website in November reported on a mass demonstration of 50,000 Kurds in Qamishli carrying banners that read: "The Kurdish National Council in Syria Represents Me".

Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, make up the largest religious minority in Syria, and represent between 8% and 15% of the population.

Image caption,
President Bashar al-Assad, whose poster is paraded during a pro-government demonstration, is a member of the Alawite community

They are arguably the most powerful sect in Syria, but potentially the most vulnerable if there is regime change because of their association with President Bashar al-Assad, who is a member of the Alawi community. Alawites occupy top posts in the government and the security services, giving them a disproportionate amount of power.

However, as a community the Alawites aren't seen to be in an advantageous position. According to Burhan Ghalioun, chairman of the opposition Syrian National Council, the Syrian government ''treated the Alawites the worst and those from the Alawite community that benefited from this regime make [up] only a tiny percentage''.

According to a briefing by the International Crisis Group, an organisation that seeks to prevent conflict, ''the regime in effect took the Alawite minority hostage, linking its fate to its own. It did so deliberately and cynically, not least in order to ensure the loyalty of the security services which, far from being a privileged, praetorian elite corps, are predominantly composed of underpaid and overworked Alawites hailing from villages the regime has left in a state of abject underdevelopment.''

Activists have accused the government of employing heavily armed men derived from the Alawite community, as well as other minorities such as the Druze, to fight alongside regular army and security units. Commonly referred to by the opposition as "Shabbihah", or thugs in colloquial Syrian Arabic, they have been accused of intimidating, beating and killing protesters.

About 10% of the population is estimated to observe Christianity, with the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches making up the largest denominations. Christians are spread throughout the country, with sizeable populations in Damascus, Homs and Latakia.

Predominantly Christian villages, such as Saydanaya and Maalula, exist on the outskirts of Damascus, in addition to the coastal towns of Safita.

Christians are considered to enjoy a relatively high degree of religious tolerance. They worship freely and hold some senior positions in government.

It is widely believed that most Christians have so far abstained from taking part in the protests out of fear that an Islamist government would deny them religious privileges.

Syrian media have used clerical figures such as Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim to support the government position. President Assad reportedly met Christian leaders shortly after the unrest began and warned that their future was more secure with him in power. Christian leaders have addressed pro-government rallies, voicing their backing for the authorities and urging Syrians to engage in dialogue.

Ismailis in Syria are said to number around 200,000. Ismailism is a branch of Shia Islam, and has around 15 million followers worldwide who recognise the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. He visited Syria in 2008.

The city of Salamia, near Hama, is largely populated by Ismailis.

There have also been reports of pro- and anti-government demonstrations in the city. A state-organised rally in support of the government was reported in November. Anti-government protests were reported to have been staged in the city in June.

Image caption,
Members of Druze communities from the region share a meal in Syria

There are around between 500,000 and 700,000 Druze in southern Syria.

Druze follow a monotheistic religion drawn on Ismailism, the second largest branch of Shia Islam.

President Assad has reportedly sought their support after the prominent Lebanese politician and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt berated the Druze in Syria for not being more supportive of the protests. "Shame on the Druze of Syria; they have always been at the forefront of all revolutions," he said

Guide prepared by BBC Monitoring, which selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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