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Syria is a cradle of Christianity. The faith’s presence there predates Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in A.D. 70, the Syrian city of Antioch became the center of Christian thought in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, rivaling the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Antiochene theologians, from both the Greek and Syriac traditions, played leading roles in the Christological controversies that eventually divided the early church. These differences are now understood as cultural and linguistic, rather than strictly theological.

Modern Antioch is a city of 100,000 people in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which Turkey annexed from Syria in 1939. Nevertheless, modern Syria remains the center of the Antiochene church; the capital of Damascus is home to three patriarchs of Antioch and All the East: Orthodox Ignatius IV, Syriac Orthodox Ignatius Zakka I and Melkite Greek Catholic Gregory III.

Demographics. About 22 million people live in Syria, including 472,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and up to 1.5 million displaced Iraqis, more than a tenth of whom are Christian.

While nearly three quarters of the country is Sunni Muslim, power lies with Syria’s Alawi minority, an obscure religious group rooted in Shiite Islam that includes up to 10 percent of the Syrian population. Sunnis and Shiites consider the Alawi a non-Muslim sect. Nevertheless, the Syrian parliament passed a resolution declaring the Alawi a part of Islam. The Syrian constitution requires the president to be a Muslim, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as head of state in 2000, is an Alawi.

Christians make up a tenth of the population or two million people. About half belong to the Antiochene Orthodox Church, the preeminent Christian institution in the country. Perhaps as many as 500,000 people belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church and 125,000 belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholics number some 400,000 people and include 234,000 Melkites, 62,000 Syriacs, 51,000 Maronites, 25,000 Armenians, 12,000 Latins and 15,000 Chaldeans, though this does not include the fluctuating number of Iraqi Chaldeans seeking refuge in the country.

The rest of Syria’s population, about 5 percent, belongs to either the Druze or Shiite traditions.

Sociopolitical situation. The death of President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 removed one of the longest serving heads of state in the region and a key figure in its affairs. At first, his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, pursued some political changes as interest in reform surged. Human rights activists, as well as some parliamentarians, became more outspoken during a period referred to as the “Damascus Spring” (July 2000 to February 2001). The president also made appointments from among reform-minded technocrats.

Yet the process of political transformation remains slow: In 2001, the police arrested two reformist parliamentarians while reformist advisers have been largely marginalized.

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Tags: Syria Refugees Middle East Christians Antiochene church