The Alawites are members of a special Islamic group; there are about 2 million of them in Syria (10-15 per cent of the total Syrian population). Their mother tongue is Arabic, and their traditional homeland is the mountainous region south-east of Latakia, Syria’s largest port. The Alawites were persecuted by Sunnite Muslims in earlier centuries, so they retreated to the mountains far from the Mediterranean coast. For a long time, they lived in poverty and without any access to education.
It is generally thought that the Alawites (formerly called Nusairians) trace their origins to the religious teacher Muhammad Ibn Nusair (died around 883). His teaching led to a new sect and a consequent splitting from Ismailism, a Shiite cult of Islam. The sect was later called Alawite – named after Ali, Muhammad’s much admired cousin and son-in-law (Caliph from 656-661). Their faith has retained many non-Islamic, early oriental beliefs.
Alawite doctrines have not been written down, but rather they are handed down as secrets by the religious leaders. The Alawite faith is a secret religion even today. Alawites do not have mosques, only devotional rooms. They disapprove of the Islamic religious duties (praying five times, fasting during Ramadan etc), but under persecution they sometimes practise them to protect themselves.
Under the French mandate rule (1920-46), the Alawites were given significant positions in society to counterbalance the powerful Sunnites. Many became officers in the Syrian army and gained influence in society. They adopted the national socialistic ideology of the Arab renewal (Arab Baath) and came to power in 1963 with the ‘Baath Party’. Today’s Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, is Alawite, and has only formally converted to Sunni Islam. In the eyes of Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of the Syrian population, the Alawites are perceived as atheistically orientated.
Between 1856 and 1958, missionaries evangelised in the predominantly Alawite regions. Some individual Alawites came to believe in Jesus as their Lord and joined Protestant churches. However, no indigenous Alawite churches came into being. Some of the descendants of these Christians turned back to the religion of their ancestors under pressure from the majority; others – including many Syrian Christians – have emigrated from Syria during recent decades.
Outreach among Alawites needs to begin again, even though it is forbidden to evangelise in Syria. However, Alawites can listen to evangelistic radio programmes and receive Christian TV broadcasts by satellite. In Aleppo or Damascus, they can buy a Bible or Christian books. But rarely will they meet a native Christian who is able to explain the gospel to them.
Prayer for Syria:
* Pray that there will be an awakening among the Alawites through the Spirit of God, so that they will search for the truth.
* Pray for the Alawites to turn to Christ through the testimony of Christians and through evangelistic literature and radio and satellite TV programmes.
* Pray for there to be a new freedom for the proclamation of the gospel, especially by foreigners, thus ending 45 years of prohibition.
* Download: Syrian Prayer guide for children (On the Cry Out Now site)
Background on Syria (World Factbook)
Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, France administered Syria until its independence in 1946. The country lacked political stability, however, and experienced a series of military coups during its first decades. Syria united with Egypt in February 1958 to form the United Arab Republic, but in September 1961 the two entities separated and the Syrian Arab Republic was reestablished. In November 1970, Hafiz al-ASAD, a member of the Socialist Ba’th Party and the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a bloodless coup and brought political stability to the country. In the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and over the past decade Syria and Israel have held occasional peace talks over its return. Following the death of President al-ASAD in July 2000, Bashar al-ASAD was elected as president. Influenced by major uprisings that began elsewhere in the region, antigovernment protests broke out in the southern province of Da’ra in March 2011 and spread to other Syrian cities. Protesters called for the repeal of the restrictive Emergency Law allowing arrests without charge, the legalization of political parties, and the removal of corrupt local officials. The government responded with a mix of force and concessions, including the repeal of the Emergency Law. Unrest persists in 2013, and the death toll among Syrian Government forces, opposition forces, and civilians has topped 100,000.
Economy of Syria
The Government of Syria has implemented modest economic reforms in the past few years, including cutting lending interest rates, opening private banks, consolidating some of the multiple exchange rates, and raising prices on some subsidized items, most notably, gasoline and cement. Nevertheless, the economy remains highly controlled by the government. Long-run economic constraints include declining oil production, high unemployment, rising budget deficits, and increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and water pollution.
Statistics on Syria
Population: 22,457,336 (July 2013 est.) World rank #54
Life Expectancy at Birth: 75.14 years. World rank #97
Ethnic groups: Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%
Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects 16%, Christian (various sects) 10%, Jewish (tiny communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo)
Languages: Arabic (official); Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, Circassian widely understood; French, English somewhat understood
Literacy: 84.1% — Male: 90.3%, Female: 77.7%
School Life Expectancy: 11 years
Marketplace in Syria (Damascus) – Video
Sights and Sounds of Syria