Reaching the Nations

Syria

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 438,317 square km.  Located in the Middle East, Syria borders Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Mediterranean Sea.  Desert plains occupy north and east areas whereas hilly terrain and low mountains occupy central and western areas.  A narrow coastal plain is adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea.  Semiarid conditions occur in most areas.  The Euphrates River flows through the east, entering Syria from Turkey and exiting into Iraq.  Dust storms and sandstorms are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, desertification, water pollution, and water scarcity.  Israel annexed a portion of the Golan Heights in 1967 and maintained 41 settlements in 2010 although sovereignty of the area is disputed.  Syria is divided into 14 administrative provinces.

Population: 22,198,110 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 1.954% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 3.02 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 72.1 male, 76.96 female (2010)

Peoples

Arab: 90.3%

other: 9.7%

The population is predominately Arab.  Kurds and Armenians comprise the largest minority ethnic groups.  There are approximately 1 to 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and half a million Palestinian refugees.

Languages: Arabic dialects (88%), Kurdish (7%), Armenian (2.5%), other (2.5%).  Arabic is the official language.  Languages spoken by over one million speakers include Arabic dialects (19.5 million) and Kurdish (1.6 million).

Literacy: 79.6% (2004)

History

Some of the oldest known civilizations thrived in present-day Syria and achieved advanced technological and developed cultural legacies that have been unearthed by modern archaeologists.  The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great expanded into Syria around 2500 B.C. and many large cities were founded.  One of the most populous cities of the ancient world, Ebla supported an estimated 260,000 inhabitants at this time.  Syria's present-day capital Damascus was founded at about 2500 B.C. and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities.  Nearly a dozen ancient civilizations controlled Syria at one time or another between the second millennium B.C. and the seventh century A.D., including Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabateans, and Byzantines.  Saul of Tarsus, who later became the apostle Paul, received his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus as recorded the New Testament book of Acts of the Apostles.  Islam spread to Syria in 636.  The Omayyad Empire based its capital in Damascus and at its peak stretched from Spain to India from 661 to 750.  The Mongols invaded in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and devastated Damascus.  In 1517, the Ottomans captured Damascus and ruled Syria until 1920 when Syria attained a brief independence lasting only a few months as French forces overran the country.  Syria was placed under French mandate by the League of Nations the same year.  The Vichy Government administered Syria following the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940.  French forces evacuated in 1946 and a republican government formed during the mandate declared independence.  Severe political instability persisted from 1946 to the late 1960s as successive military coups took control.  In 1958, a joint Syria-Egypt state known as the United Arab Republic emerged but Syria seceded from the union in 1961 following another military coup.  In 1963, the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party) engineered a comprehensive takeover of all execute and legislative government authority.  A similar takeover carried out by army officers occurred in 1966 in an effort to rectify Ba'ath Party principles in the government.  The socialist government was weakened by the frustration of plans to unify with Iraq and Egypt, as well as war with Israel which culminated in another military coup in 1970 under Hafiz al-Asad.  Asad enacted several legislative and political reforms which stabilized the country.  The Islamist fundamentalist political party the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to seize control of the government in a failed uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Asad annihilated rebel forces in 1982, leveling portions of the opposition stronghold of Hama with heavy artillery fire which killed and wounded thousands.  Syria improved its relations with the West and other Arab states by participating in the United States-led military offensive against Iraq in 1990 and engaging in international conferences and peace talks.  Asad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar Al-Asad.  Relations with the United States soured in the 2000s as Syria opposed the Iraq War and refused to comply with the United States' and United Nations' demands for Syria to cease its support of terrorist organizations, military interference in Lebanon, and alleged development of weapons of mass destruction.  Consequently Syria was subject to economic sanctions that severely restricted trade with the United States.  There has been some improvement and increased dialogue in recent years between Syria and the international community, but relations with most nations remain poor and border disputes with Lebanon are ongoing.[1

Culture 

Syria has historically been a major influence on the development of Arab culture and literature.  Today Islam, Arab culture, and the family are the primary influences on society.  The coexistence of Muslim, Christians, and other religious groups has been largely peaceful for several centuries.  Close physical contact is commonplace and gender segregation occurs in most publics areas.  Film, literature, poetry, and art are proud Syrian traditions.  A fusion of Mediterranean and Arab foods comprise local cuisine, which includes vegetables, hummus, bread, cheese, coffee, yogurt, lamb, and chicken.  As a result of past French rule, European influence is visible in the largest cities.[2]  Cigarette consumption rates are comparable to the worldwide average smoking rate whereas alcohol consumption rates are well below world averages.  Polygamy is legal.  

Economy

GDP per capita: $4,800 (2010) [10.1% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.589

Corruption Index: 2.5

The government heavily regulates the economy.  Recent economic reforms have been enacted, including the establishment of the Damascus Stock Exchange, the opening of private banks, and the reduction of interest rates in the late 2000s.  Barriers to economic growth include high unemployment, declining oil production, water scarcity, and a rapidly growing population.  Natural resources include petroleum, phosphates, metallic minerals and ores, rock salt, marble, gypsum, and hydropower.  Services employ two-thirds of the labor force and generate over half of the GDP whereas industry employs 16% of the labor force and generates 27% of the GDP.  Petroleum, clothing, food processing, mining, and cement are major industries.  Agriculture employs 17% of the labor force and generates 18% of the GDP.  Common crops include grains, cotton, lentils, olives, and sugar beets.  Beef, mutton, eggs, milk, and poultry are additional agricultural products.  Primary trade partners include Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.  

Corruption is perceived as widespread.  Human trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation and domestic servitude is a major concern involving women and children from Iraq, Southeast Asia, and sub-Sahara Africa.  There have been no reported law enforcement efforts to protect victims from these inhumane practices.  Syria is a transshipment point for cocaine, hashish, and opiates destined for Europe and neighboring nations.  Syria is vulnerable to money laundering as anti-money laundering legislation remains undeveloped.

Faiths

Muslim: 90%

Christian: 10%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Greek Orthodox  1,100,000

Syriac Orthodox  680,000

Catholic  368,000 

Jehovah's Witnesses  less than 500

Seventh-Day Adventists  587  7 (includes Jordan and Lebanon)  

Latter-Day Saints  less than 30  1  

Religion

Sunni Muslims account for 74% of the population whereas other Muslim groups constitute 13% of the population.  Approximately 10% of Syrians are Christians, although due to emigration the percentage of Christians may have fallent to 8%.  The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination.  Other prominent Christian churches include the Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Catholic Churches.  Christians are concentrated in the largest cities and the Hasaka governorate.  There are approximately 100,000 Yezidis and 100 Jews.[3]

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects religious freedom but local laws and government policies restrict this right.  There is no state religion but the constitution mandates that the president must be a Muslim and that Islamic law is the source of legislation.  All citizens must state their religious affiliation as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam as such documentation was required for birth certificates, marriages, and religious pilgrimages.  A few major Muslim and Christian holidays are recognized national holidays.  The government monitors all religious groups and discourages proselytism out of fears that it could disrupt public order.  Missionaries accused of proselytizing may be prosecuted for threatening relations between religious groups and receive prison sentences from five years to life, although most sentences are usually reduced to one to two years.  The government has demonstrated favoritism to Shi'a Islam and has permitted Shi'a missionaries to proselyte and convert Sunni Muslims.  Several Islamic sects are deemed illegal by the government, such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement.  Religious groups must register with the government and receive permits to hold meetings that are not worship services.  The government permitted most groups to operate while they awaited for registration approval, which can be a complicated and arduous process.  Registered religious groups and clergy receive tax benefits and other economic benefits, such as free utilities.  Civil law varies between Muslims and Christians on several issues regarding inheritance and marriage.  There are no specific laws which prohibit proselytism or the distribution of religious literature.  Christian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are permitted to operate without registering with the government as an appendage of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches.  Religious instruction in public schools is required and provided on Christianity and Islam for Christian and Muslim students.  Government abuses of religious freedom have been most severe with Muslims participating or identifying with Muslim fundamentalist sects.  The government outlaws Jehovah's Witnesses.  Societal abuse of religious freedom is limited to minor tensions between religious groups which are primarily socio-economically motivated.  Conversion is extremely unusual, technically illegal, and often forces converts to move away from their native communities.[4]

Largest Cities

Urban: 54%

Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Hama, Ar-Rakka, Deir ez-Zor, Hasakeh, Al-Qa-mishli, Al-Yarmu-k, As-Si-dah Zaynab, Tartous, Jarama-nah, Duma.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

One of the 14 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants has an LDS congregation.  35% of the national population resides in the 14 most populous cities.

LDS History

LDS missionary efforts in the Middle East commenced in Syria in the late nineteenth century among Armenian Christian communities under the Turkish Mission.  A branch established in Aleppo became one of the largest branches in the Turkish Mission, resulting in the relocation of mission headquarters to Aleppo from 1907 to 1909.  The Turkish Mission was closed in 1909 due to political instability and reopened from 1921.  When the mission reopened, missionaries alleviated the dire circumstances of the few remaining members that weathered the war.  Many members died or left the country during this period.  The mission president coordinated with French government officials to relocate Armenian members in Aintab, Turkey to Aleppo in 1921.  The mission was renamed the Armenian Mission in 1924 and closed in 1929 following the death of the mission president.  The mission reopened in 1933 as the Palestine-Syrian Mission, was closed in 1939, and reopened again in 1947.  The mission was renamed the Near East Mission in 1950 and was permanently closed in 1951.  Between the mid-twentieth century and 1997, expatriate members periodically held LDS services in Syria until a permanent branch was established.[5]  Syria was assigned to the Europe Central Area until 2008 when it was assigned to the newly created Middle East/Africa North Area. 

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: less than 30 (2009)

Most Latter-day Saints known to reside in Syria at present are expatriate members temporarily living in the country.  There are a few native Syrian members.

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 1

The Damascus Branch was organized in 1997 for expatriates living in the country.[6]  The branch either pertains to the Amman Jordan District or reports directly to the area presidency.

Activity and Retention

Member reports indicate that there are likely fewer than ten active members.  Syrian members are encouraged to not regularly attend church services due to security concerns. 

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Arabic, Armenian (East), Armenian (West), English

All LDS scriptures and most church materials are available in Arabic and Armenian (East).  The Liahona magazine has four issues in Armenian (East) a year.  The Prophet Joseph Smith's Testimony, Book of Mormon selections, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price are translated in Armenian (West).

Meetinghouses

LDS meetings likely occur in a member's home or in a rented space.

Humanitarian and Development Work

LDS humanitarian and development work as occurred at Damascus University and has included neonatal resuscitation training, hygiene kits for cancer patients, medications, and a career workshop.[7]

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

It is unclear whether the LDS Church is officially registered with the government, but Latter-day Saints have performed humanitarian and development projects for several years and likely do so under the Catholic or Orthodox Churches as a Christian NGO.  Association with Damascus University on all LDS service projects to date may indicate that LDS humanitarian and development work fully depends on the university rather than a traditional Christian church.  Full-time senior missionaries couple have served regularly in Syria as humanitarian workers.  Strict proselytism bans inhibit any LDS missionary activity.  LDS worship services occur in private.  The Church does not publicize the meetinghouse location, church meeting times, or any church presence with the exception of past humanitarian service projects.

Cultural Issues

Conversion from one religion to another is extremely rare, especially for a Muslim converting to Christianity.  Syrian religious communities are tight-knit and unaccommodating of change.  Prospective Latter-day Saint converts would most likely face intense persecution from family and their respective communities, which may require relocation to another area in the country or abroad.  The importance of the family unit in society complements LDS teachings, but the strong connection of family and religion will likely pose major challenges for prospective LDS missionary activity.  Widespread coffee consumption opposes LDS teachings.

National Outreach

With the exception of close associates of Latter-day Saints living in the country, the entire population is unreached by the LDS Church.  LDS mission outreach performed in Damascus, the only city with an LDS congregation, could reach up to eight percent of the national population if proselytism is permitted one day.  Political instability for much of the twentieth century, the emigration of Armenian Latter-day Saint converts following the closure of the Near East Mission, and government restrictions on religious freedom have presented a strong LDS Church establishment today.  Future mission outreach will most likely concentrate on Christians accessible in the largest cities.  Maintaining a church presence in Damascus is critical toward establishing any long-term presence among the indigenous population. 

Internet outreach may be an effective means to provide opportunity for more of the population to become aware of the Church and its teachings.  Arabic-language LDS websites created by church members have facilitated the conversion of Arab Muslims in other nations in the Middle East.  Humanitarian and development work offer positive public relations building opportunities within the scope of the law.

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Intense societal opposition to conversion and government restrictions on religious freedom demand a high degree of dedication and faith from Syrians who desire to join the LDS Church.  Consequently, prospective Latter-day Saint converts will likely exhibit strong devotion to the Church but may struggle coping with the societal backlash of their conversions and be unable to attend church regularly.  Member activity rates among non-natives appear representative of their countries of origin or perhaps slightly lower due to counsel against regular church attendance.

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Arab-Syrians, Palestinians, and Iraqis share many cultural and linguistic similarities, resulting the few potential ethnic integration issues if Latter-day Saint members from each of these groups attended the same congregations.  Integration of Kurds and Armenians into predominantly Arab congregations present greater challenges due to differing cultural and religious backgrounds.  The Church may experience greater success among Kurds and Armenians that the Arab majority as these groups have been more receptive to missionary-oriented Christian groups in recent years than their Arab counterparts.  Latter-day Saint demographics are representative of national demographics as a result of higher receptivity among minority groups; this may create long-term challenges reaching the Arab majority.

Language Issues

Because expatriate members comprise the bulk of church membership, services are held in English.  The Syrian dialect of Arabic features many similarities with standard Arabic, and so there is no need for the translation of LDS materials into Syrian Arabic.  There are no LDS scriptures or materials translated into Kurdish.  LDS materials available in both Armenian dialects provide opportunities for outreach among Armenian communities if proselytism is permitted one day.

Missionary Service

No Syrian Latter-day Saints are known to have served a full-time mission.  With the exception of senior missionary couples on humanitarian assignment, no full-time missionaries have been assigned to Syria since the mid-twentieth century.

Leadership

Non-native members staff all local church leadership.  There are no known native members capable of serving in leadership positions.

Temple

Syria is likely assigned to the London England Temple district.  Native members are generally unable to attend the temple due to time constraints, travel expenses, and visa issues. 

Comparative Growth

The presence of the LDS Church in Syria is among the most limited in the Middle East despite the operation of the Damascus Branch for a decade and a half.  Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon are the only Arab nations which have had multiple Latter-day Saint converts in recent years and only Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine (West Bank) have a small established community of native Latter-day Saints.  The Arab Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have larger LDS membership notwithstanding their predominately Arab-Muslim populations due to the large expatriate presence in the largest cities.  More LDS humanitarian and development projects have been conducted in Syria than in most other Arab nations.

Mission-focused Christian groups report stagnant or declining membership and congregational growth as many Christians have emigrated and the government bans all forms of proselytism.  Jehovah's Witnesses report government surveillance and persecution. 

Future Prospects

The outlook for the future LDS Church growth in Syria is poor due to strong cultural-religious ties, government restrictions, and the lack of a Syrian Latter-day Saint community.  Ongoing LDS humanitarian work and the continued operation of the Damascus Branch notwithstanding small national membership are positive developments.  Maintaining the current status of the Church in Syria is warranted to prepare for a time when conditions may become more favorable for LDS missionary outreach. 


[1]  "Background Note: Syria," Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, 8 September 2010.  http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm

[2]  "Syria," Countries and Their Cultures," retrieved 28 February 2011.  http://www.everyculture.com/Sa-Th/Syria.html

[3]  "Syria," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010 . http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148845.htm

[4]  "Syria," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010 . http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148845.htm

[5]  "Syria," Global Mormonism Project - BYU, retrieved 25 February 2011.  http://globalmormonism.byu.edu/?page_id=83

[6]  "Syria," Global Mormonism Project - BYU, retrieved 25 February 2011.  http://globalmormonism.byu.edu/?page_id=83

[7]  "Projects - Syria," Humanitarian Activities Worldwide, retrieved 25 February 2011.  http://www.providentliving.org/project/0,13501,4607-1-2008-252,00.html