Religious institution in Syria: Al-Assad’s old-new target

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, attending a religious festival to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed “PBUH” at the Imam al-Shafi’i Mosque in the Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus - 18 October 2021 (the official Facebook account of the Syrian Presidency)

Religious institution in Syria: Al-Assad’s old-new target

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, attending a religious festival to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed “PBUH” at the Imam al-Shafi’i Mosque in the Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus - 18 October 2021 (the official Facebook account of the Syrian Presidency)

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, attending a religious festival to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed “PBUH” at the Imam al-Shafi’i Mosque in the Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus - 18 October 2021 (the official Facebook account of the Syrian Presidency)


Jana al-Issa | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Saleh Malas

The Syrian regime has succeeded during the reign of Hafez al-Assad and his son, the current president Bashar al-Assad, in subduing the religious institution alongside various other sectors and government institutions in Syria. To that end, the two Assads used the religious discourse and social popularity of some Syrian clergymen and preachers to encapsulate the concept of power with religious logic.

This started in the early 1970s after Hafez al-Assad came to power and started lobbying influential religious people of theologians and jurists. He also canceled the election process of the grand mufti position in Syria and reappointed Ahmad Kuftaro as grand mufti for life. Kuftaro remained in position from 1964 until he died in 2004.

The al-Assad regime expanded the role of some Muslim clergymen to go beyond delivering Friday sermons and celebrating religious festivals while manipulating the religious rhetoric according to its vision. Famous Religious leaders and scholars were used as mediums to send messages to the Syrian street or create or ease social unrest.

The ruling authority subjected the religious establishment in Syria to further consolidate its power on mosque pulpits, condemn “takfirists and religious extremists,” celebrate the gifts and achievements attributed to the ruler of the country, and pray for those in power. 

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi highlights the regime’s political investment in Syria’s religious institution, its development process and mandated tasks, and the future of this investment and its impact on Syrian society.

It also discusses the reasons for the recent tensions within the Syrian religious establishment, triggered by the abolition of the grand mufti post and promotion of the role of Majlis al-Ilmi al-Fikhi (Council of Jurisprudence Scholars – CJS) under a presidential decree that sparked much controversy around its reasons and timing of issuance.  

The division of roles in Syria’s religious institution

The religious establishment in Syria was divided in terms of its role into two parties, namely the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (Awqaf) and the Grand Mufti (the highest Islamic authority in Syria). Each party works on a different level and within different contexts to serve the regime’s internal and external policies.

The regime employed the Ministry of Endowments to look into local issues and citizens’ livelihood concerns, while the grand mufti was granted a relatively bigger role, serving as a mouthpiece to the regime and communicating messages to the outside world.  

After the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and the deterioration of living and economic conditions, manifested in rising prices, the devaluation of the Syrian pound, unprecedented economic crisis, and absence of security and civil and political freedoms, the Ministry of Endowments started addressing Syrians with tolerant religious rhetoric calling for social solidarity, while boosting their morale.  

The Syrian Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs, Mohammed Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed, demanded clergymen to dedicate time during Friday sermons to encourage people to practice zakat and feed the poor, promising them of victory, just like the Syrian army emerged victorious from the war by virtue of faith and sacrifice,” as he put it. 

During a symposium organized by the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL) on 9 March, entitled “Syrian Family Days,” al-Sayyed said that merchants and businessmen’s role in mitigating what he called the “effects of the siege against Syria” is a “religious obligation imposed by Islam,” not just a social obligation.

Al-Sayyed praised the government for meeting people’s needs, calling critics to desist from criticizing or accusing it of institutional failure. He blamed “aggressor countries” for causing the Syrian people to starve, at a time, the purchasing power of citizens was declining due to increased inflation and price hikes.

On 31 March, al-Sayyed called on clergymen in Latakia governorate to address citizens and merchants during Friday sermons to come together to overcome the “crisis,” pushing towards social solidarity through the zakat payments to the poor as the holy month of Ramadan was approaching. 

In reference to online criticism against the regime’s government, al-Sayyed urged for awareness-raising among citizens so as not to be deluded by social media pages run by “outside parties,” which aim to “hold the Syrian government responsible for what is happening on the ground.”

In December 2019, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) cited al-Sayyed announcing in a press statement the launch of a campaign entitled “Religion and Morality are Intertwined… Kindly Lower Your Prices,” under the umbrella of the Ministry of Endowments, in an attempt to counter soaring prices.

Minister al-Sayyed also mentioned that the ministry’s initiative was directed by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to confront high prices through the “promotion of human and moral values,” as he put it.

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, attending a religious festival to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed “PBUH” at the Imam al-Shafi’i Mosque in the Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus - 18 October 2021 (the official Facebook account of the Syrian Presidency)

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, attending a religious festival to mark the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammed “PBUH” at the Imam al-Shafi’i Mosque in the Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus – 18 October 2021 (the official Facebook account of the Syrian Presidency)

Grand Mufti Hassoun: Bashar al-Assad’s message-carrier

Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun has held the grand mufti position in Syria since 2005, after the death of his predecessor Ahmed Kuftaro in 2004. He played a prominent role in passing the regime’s messages to the outside world since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011.

Hassoun’s last public speech was delivered days before Bashar al-Assad’s abolition of the grand mufti post in Syria. The soon-to-be ousted mufti was attending the funeral of famous Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri in early November in the presence of several ministers and high officials.

During the speech, Hassoun said that Sabah Fakhri’s refusal to leave Syria was a message to all those working in the fields of science, art, and business and to people who left the country, that the killing and destruction that took place in Syria was not inflicted by its sons but its enemies, calling them to return and protect Syria with their blood.  

Months after the outbreak of the revolution, Grand Mufti Hassoun made statements before the Lebanese Mariam Convoy members, broadcasted by the Alikhbaria Syria channel, in which he addressed Europe threatening it with “martyrdom operations” on its lands in case Syria or Lebanon were targeted.

Hassoun used the words, “To all Europe and America, we will organize martyrdom operations carried out by people living on your lands, should you bomb Syria or Lebanon. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the initiator shall bear the brunt of the blame.”

However, five years later, and during a speech to the Irish Parliament’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016, Hassoun disassociated himself from his threats to Europe by blaming translation errors

The former grand mufti added, “I said do not bomb Syria or Lebanon, for if fire broke out in Syria or Lebanon, sleeper cells in the world would rise up as a reaction. I spoke out of fear for Europe to get hit by terrorism.”

In July 2017, Hassoun delivered the Friday sermon at the al-Rawdah Mosque in Aleppo after the regime regained control of its eastern neighborhoods in late 2016. In the sermon, Hassoun mocked the regime’s opponents, telling them to pray to God to topple al-Assad’s regime and went further to invite them to start a dialogue with the regime and present arguments and evidence that they would serve Syria better than Bashar al-Assad. 

During a phone call with Syrian television in April 2015, Hassoun publicly called for the destruction of opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo for launching missiles on regime-held neighborhoods. 

 Authority-guided religious discourse distorts reality in Syria 

The authority-directed religious discourse to Syrian society contributes to the formation of a fundamental aspect of people’s identity, as it is directly linked to the problems and challenges of reality.

The focus on the sanctity of life enabled the religious discourse to assume distinctive importance in any society. In Syria, the al-Assad regime utilized religion as a tool to pass certain ideologies to society’s targeted segments after limiting the powers of famous religious figures under governmental guidance.   

The religious institution’s submissiveness to authority helped the al-Assad regime strengthen and back its governance, exploiting people’s great importance attributed to religious matters and their effect on their behaviors, experiences, and decisions. This utilization created several problems for the Syrian society throughout al-Assad’s reign.  

In 1958, the Associations and Private Societies Law No. 93 was promulgated in Syria during the short-lived union with Egypt as the United Arab Republic (1958-61), consisting of 75 articles. The law was followed by legislative amendments under Decree No. 224, following the Ba’ath Party’s accession to power in 1969. 

The law was heavily influenced by notions that the state should control and guide society, according to the “No Room to Breath” report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published in 2017.

The amendments have entitled broad powers to the Syrian executive authority in the establishment process of Islamic associations and their merging and dissolution without resorting to the judiciary. The government dealt with civil society organizations as public sector institutions.  

Syria’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL) maintains handwritten files on registered civil society associations, including Islamic ones. Information about associations, although limited, is considered confidential by officials, implying that civil work in Syria is a state secret that cannot be disclosed. This significantly impacted the performance of Islamic associations, their fundraising, and networking, according to a 2012 briefing paper by the International NGO Training and Research Center (INTRAC), entitled “The NGO Sector in Syria – An Overview.”

According to the paper, “Ministers appointed to run the MOSAL are all perceived as closely related to the security services, and recent ministers had taken a much harder line with associations.”

It added, “The MOSAL has a difficult role to play. On the one hand, it performs a security function against (perceived and real) foreign threats, in particular in terms of regime fears of so-called Zionist, Islamist, American and imperialist or neo-colonial intrusion into Syria.”  

“Any civil society organization has several obligations. It has to send minutes of meetings, accounts, and reports to MOSAL, with the possibility of ministry and security officials to attend its meetings,” the paper added.

Moreover, the establishment of Islamic associations and their activities were disrupted most by Law No. 49 of 1980, which stipulated the death sentence against any member in the Muslim Brotherhood in its first article.

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, performing the Eid al-Fitr prayer in one of the mosques of the Syrian capital, Damascus - 6 July 2019 (SANA)

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, performing the Eid al-Fitr prayer in one of the mosques of the Syrian capital, Damascus – 6 July 2019 (SANA)

The ever-diminishing role of Syria’s religious institution

Syrian researcher in Islamic groups, Abdul Rahman al-Haj, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s use of religion for political ends to repress any opposing activity instead of supporting the rule of law has undoubtedly helped it influence society and control religious activity. 

In an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its official website and social media platforms on the nature of the religious discourse in Syria today. A percentage of 93 percent of participants said the religious discourse is used to serve political ends, while the remaining 7 percent said that the discourse is focused on religious issues.

According to al-Haj, the Syrian religious institutions failed to assert their entitlement to promote intellectual awareness in society and to contribute to its development, owing to the contradiction of the reasons for their establishment and the actual tasks entrusted to them under coercive and intimidating authority that has full control on the country’s religious establishment.

“This greatly reduced the responsibilities of religious positions to a mere security tool,” al-Haj said.

He added, “The submissiveness of religious institutions and the marginalization of independent ulama attributed to the regime has left a large vacuum in the religious landscape of the country.” 

To al-Haj, “All religious institutions and scholars associated with the regime have lost their credibility, leading to a different understanding of religion promoted by sources outside the censorship of the regime’s authority.” It also caused the emergence of contradictory interpretations for some Quranic texts among ulama of the same religious doctrine.

In some cases, the interests of political authority were responsible for the emergence of various interpretations, jurisprudence, and fatwas: a formal ruling or interpretation on the point of Islamic law given by a qualified legal scholar. 

According to al-Haj, individuals’ loss of faith in any spiritual dimension to authority-directed religious discourse or its aligned and supporting figures has allowed, at certain times, extremists or pretentious religious people to step in to fill the void with their interpretations, leading to religious radicalism and loss of sense of safety and identity.  

Syrian writer Mamdouh Adwan said in his book “The Animalization of Man” on page 169, “Religion’s utility for the benefit of authority subjects people to falsification or misinformation. A repressive state can not establish its governance within a cohesive society. The social, religious, sectarian, or ethnic fragmentation and the revival of affiliations of this kind, which we see in suppressed societies, is as much a product of oppressive regimes as it is their weapon.”

The book also discussed the political manipulation of religion to sanctify authority before people. “The slightest threat to state authority is viewed as a blasphemous act,” the book reads. 

“When an oppressive authority relies on religion as an organizing force of society, it uses religion to take advantage of its power and the power of its representatives to the public, and the observance of religious ceremonies is nothing but a mere formality to delude people.”

By referring to religious festivals, Adwan recalls scenes where the head of authority appears surrounded by senior religious officials as a reflection of the religious institution’s submissiveness to authority.

Al-Haj said that the gloomy reality of the religious institution in Syria has helped create community-based fears of sectarian dimensions. As a result, people resorted to the internet seeking information from references and sources of religious knowledge they trust, away from any religious exploitation for the benefit of the authority. This led to “the creation of uncertain and inconsistent knowledge, which fell short in meeting people’s long-term spiritual needs, enforcing their sense of loss instead of providing them with meaning, peace, and comfort that they have been seeking.”  

Syrian ulama face grim fates despite loyalty to the regime

In recent years, many Muslim clergypersons and scholars close to the Syrian regime have met grim fates despite their long service to the regime and endorsement of its rhetoric to Syrians under the cloak of religion to serve multiple ends, including the mitigation of public’s outrage against a certain issue or shaping public opinion in line with the authority’s vision. 

Al-Assad doing away with Grand Mufti Hassoun after controversy

On 15 November, the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued a legislative decree abolishing Article 35 of a 2018 law, which allowed the minister of endowments to nominate the grand mufti for a three-year term, renewable only by presidential legislation. As a result, Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun ceased to be Syria’s grand mufti after filling this position for 16 years, starting from 2005 following the death of Ahmad Kuftaro. 

Hassoun caused controversy on 2 November at the funeral of late singer Sabah Fakhri, when he said that “the map of Syria is mentioned in the Quran in Surat At-Tin.” 

Hassoun also said that the mention of the fig and olive trees in the Quranic verse meant that “God has created human beings in Syria in the most perfect creation,” adding that those who left the country would be punished by God, and he cited the verse “Then we reduced him to the lowest of the low.”

Mamoun Rahma, the pilgrimage to Mount Qasioun and dismissal 

In April 2019, the regime’s Ministry of Endowments removed Mamoun Rahma from his position as a preacher of the Umayyad Mosque, despite his numerous speeches and positions consistent with the regime’s need to communicate specific subliminal messages to Syrians within its areas of control.

During the Friday sermon before his removal, Rahma delivered a speech at the Umayyad Mosque, in which he considered the wait of Syrians for hours at fuel stations as a “leisure trip,” referring to aspects he rendered positive in the long wait for fuel under the smart card rationing system. 

In August 2017, Rahma called on every Syrian Muslim who missed pilgrimage to go up Mount Qasioun, the “Mount of Victory, Pride, and Dignity,” as he put it. In the same month, he promoted the 59th Damascus International Fair during a religious sermon, in line with a massive advertising campaign by the regime for the same purpose.   

The killing of Sheikh al-Bouti, who sided with al-Assad

On 21 March 2013, the former president of the Levant Ulama Association, Dr. Mohammed Said Ramadan al-Bouti, was killed in a suicide bombing inside the al-Iman Mosque in the al-Mazra’ah neighborhood in Damascus.

According to SANA, the bombing led to the killing of nearly 50 persons and the injury of several others. 

A video recording circulated on the internet after the explosion showed men approaching al-Bouti, who was then still alive, only to walk away after “killing” him.  

Al-Bouti aligned himself with the regime’s side during the early years of the Syrian uprising, stating that those protesting against al-Assad are entirely separated from religion. 

The regime, represented by Bashar al-Assad, condemned the assassination of Sheikh al-Bouti and announced a national mourning day in respect of al-Bouti and other martyrs who were killed in the same explosion. In a telegram of condolences shared by SANA, Al-Assad pledged to “cleanse the country of extremists and terrorists,” whom he accused of carrying out the assassination.

The then president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, commonly named the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, also condemned the killing of al-Bouti, calling the bombing a “crime by all standards.”

The former Free Syrian Army (FSA) denied its responsibility for the assassination of al-Bouti, while the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) released a statement condemning the bombing that killed Sheikh al-Bouti and several others in one of Damascus’ mosques, without pointing fingers towards any side.

For its part, the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) accused the regime of standing behind the killing of al-Bouti and released a statement condemning the targeting of ulama and mosques. 

In 2016, Syrian former grand mufti Hassoun accused Saudi Arabia of planning and killing al-Bouti and told the Iranian TV channel al-Alam that “whoever executed Nimr al-Nimr (a prominent Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi government) has also planned and killed Sheikh al-Bouti.”

Animosity and rivalry bring Grand Mufti Hassoun down

The regime’s manipulation of the religious institution in Syria did not ensure a harmonious relationship between its loyalist religious scholars, as lots of information surfaced during the past few years indicating a dispute and enmity among them. 

A clear manifestation of this enmity was the indirect attack by the regime’s Ministry of Endowments-affiliated Council of Jurisprudence Scholars (CJS) on former Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun after the latter spent years endorsing the regime’s narratives on the “war on terrorism” inside and outside Syria.   

The CJS responded to Hassoun’s controversial interpretation of Surat At-Tin and pointed out that it was incorrect and a distortion of meaning. 

The CJS released a statement saying that “extremists takfirists’ approach depends on the distortion of the interpretation of Quranic verses for personal ends in line with their takfiri objectives.”

Religious doctrine and localism: Other reasons behind Hassoun’s elimination as grand mufti

The spokesman of the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC), Motee al-Bateen, told Enab Baladi that the CJS’s statement which attacked Hassoun without naming him directly and accused him of following extremists takfirists’ approach had highlighted the extent of the old-new dispute between Hassoun and the Minister of Endowments Mohammed Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed.

Al-Bateen added that “both Hassoun and al-Sayyed were trying to remove each other out of the picture at any possible chance and when al-Sayyed finally had the opportunity to do so he did not hesitate and achieved what he wanted.   

Dr. Mohammad Habash, founder and adviser to the Center for Islamic Studies and founder of the Enlightenment Writers Association, told Enab Baladi that the abolition of the grand mufti post in Syria and the strengthening of the role of the CJS reveals the absence of in-depth studies or real governance by the regime’s government to produce wise and progressive resolutions. 

Habash emphasized that the elimination of the grand mufti position came after years of cold war within the religious institution, adding that top senior religious men sought after positions with disregard to the constitutional process for posts assumption.

In an interview with the Malcolm H. Kerr – Carnegie Middle East Center in mid-November, researcher Thomas Pierret said that Minister al-Sayyed was behind Hassoun’s sidelining and the abrogation of the grand mufti position. He also added that al-Sayyed was behind Law 31 of 2018, reducing the term time of the mufti position from life to a three-year service. 

Pierret added that the “dispute between Hassoun and al-Sayyed is also related to matters of religious doctrine and sheer factionalism and localism with Hassoun being from Aleppo, whereas Sayyid originates from Tartous and is mostly tied to the Damascene ulama.”

Commenting on the religious doctrine issue, Pierret said that “soon after al-Sayyed was appointed in office in 2007, he garnered support among the pro-regime ulama by championing Sunni orthodoxy in the face of eccentric figures such as Hassoun.”

“The minister’s conservative constituency is what made him a more credible partner for the regime than the grand mufti, who was relatively isolated within the religious field,” according to Pierret.

Al-Assad sacrifices mufti and delegates tasks to Council of Jurisprudence 

Four days after the CJS’s statement against Hassoun, al-Assad issued a legislative decree repealing Article 35 of the 2018 Law, which stipulated that the minister of endowments will nominate the grand mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic, his duties, and powers for a three-year term, renewable only by presidential legislation.

The new legislative decree forced Hassoun’s position into abolition as Syria’s grand mufti and member of the CJS, under a 2018 Law governing the work of the Syrian Ministry of Endowments. 

The decree delegated tasks previously entrusted to the mufti to the CJS, such as issuing religious edicts and fatwas. 

The abrogation of the mufti position in Syria was followed by widespread criticism, particularly among the opposition, which considered the act an “assault on Syrians and their identity,” prompting the SIC to name Sheikh Osama al-Rifai as the “new mufti of Syria.”

Critical voices rose against this move, arguing that by canceling the mufti position and transferring his powers and tasks to the CJS, the regime allows foreign elements aligned with Iran to dominate the religious institution in Syria. 

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll where it asked its social media platforms and official website audiences if they believe the elimination of the mufti post would threaten the religious identity in Syria. Sixty percent of the participants said there would be no threat whatsoever, while 40 percent said that it would definitely leave an impact on the religious identity in Syria. 

A further step towards more authoritarianism in the religious institution

Dr. Mohammad Habash, who teaches Islamic Jurisprudence at the University of Abu Dhabi, pointed out that the grand mufti figure wielded little power in Syria and limited influence on people’s lives since the establishment of this position.

He added that the transmission of powers from an individual to a council in terms of issuing fatwas is a “good thing, independently of the political context, and a sign of democracy.” 

However, the Ministry of Endowments’ CJS has legislative powers and a worrying agenda, as its contribution to Hassoun’s dismissal and cancellation of the grand mufti post indicates its intention to impose a new and authoritarian religious authority besides the country’s military and security powers that excel in suppressing public freedoms, Habash added.  

He said that government councils, operating under authoritarian regimes, usually have “terrifying and frightening powers” that could restrict the activities and movements of religious intellectuals and jurists, viewed as “heretics” by such councils. 

In 2019, the Minister of Endowments and President of the Council of Jurisprudence Scholars (CJS), al-Sayyed, explained the council’s objectives and tasks. 

According to al-Sayyed, the CJS’s aims to “entrench the concepts of national unity and lead citizens of all segments to confront the Zionists, the extremists, and the followers of political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood group, who have been promoting discord to divide the nation to depart from its objectives.”

Habash told Enab Baladi that al-Sayyed’s explanation of the CJS’s goals indicates that the council was established for pure political ends and in no way was going to serve as a council of jurisprudence or religion sciences.

It is clear that the CJS plans to exercise “repressive and dictatorial” powers, not to promote the Islamic culture of fatwa, he added. 

Habash stressed that the CJS’s main objective remains to retaliate against the regime’s opponents, which is a core deviation from the grand mufti’s tasks, supposed to promote values of love, peace, brotherhood, morality, and spirituality.

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, performing the Eid al-Fitr prayer in one of the mosques of the Syrian capital, Damascus - 6 July 2019 (SANA)

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, performing the Eid al-Fitr prayer in one of the mosques of the Syrian capital, Damascus – 6 July 2019 (SANA)

Does Iran have a hand in granting the Council of Jurisprudence wider powers?

Many Syrian activists and those interested in the religious authority affairs in Syria have circulated views that the regime’s expansion of the CJS’ powers in terms of fatwa issuing suggests more room for Iran to control religious fatwas and edicts by the CJS.

They argued that Iran has an interest in keeping Syria’s Sunnis weak through the abolishing of the top senior religious post (the grand mufti).

However, researcher Thomas Pierret said that this view of an Iranian influence in the removal of Hassoun is “inaccurate,” explaining that this man is very pro-Iranian and maintains close ties with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated militias operating in Syria.

Pierret added that al-Sayyed, the Syrian Minister of Endowments, “is close to Russia and represents a more rigidly Sunni conception of Islam that does not fit well with Iran’s agenda in Syria.”

The Council of Jurisprudence Scholars (CJS), formed under Article V of Law No. 31 of 2018 regulating the structure and functions of the Syrian Ministry of Endowments, held its first preparatory meeting on 20 November 2019 in the presence of clergymen and ulama of different religious schools.

In two years of work, the CJS issued several fatwas on certain medical conditions for fasting during Ramadan for sick people, pregnant women, and the elderly. The council also prohibited surrogacy and experimental marriage and regulated the printing and publication process of the Holy Quran. 

Other decisions by the CJS included the closure of mosques or opening them and the suspension of congregational prayers on Fridays and holidays during the last year as part of government measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

In February 2020, the CJS issued a joint statement with the Levant Ulama Association, in which it hailed “the victory of the Syrian Arab Army in liberating Aleppo countryside from the abomination of takfiri terrorists.”

The statement congratulated the “Syrian army members and president Bashar al-Assad for achieving victory thanks to their steadfastness, truthfulness, and belief.”

No silver lining in sight

The Syrian regime has endeavored to establish its authoritarian rule by manipulating the religious institution since the Ba’ath Party came to power in Syria. It sought to undermine religious men and mobilized religious rhetoric as part of its repressive policy. 

Syrian researcher in Islamic groups, Abdul Rahman al-Haj, said that the regime continues to use the same manipulative approach with the religious institution with no indications of policy changes in the horizons.

Al-Haj added that the regime’s appeasement of Iran would drive it to optimize its use of the religious institution into unprecedented levels, reinterpreting religious texts to align with the al-Assad regime’s ideologies and schemes, which the Ministry of Endowments started doing three years ago.

In 2018, the Syrian Minister of Endowments, Mohammed Abdul Sattar al-Sayyed, gave a speech before a group of ulama entitled “The Rules and Regulations for the Interpretation of the Holy Quran towards a Contemporary Approach (the Comprehensive Interpretation “Tafsir Al-Jami” book as an example) in accordance with Bashar al-Assad’s intellectual vision of religious reform.

The speech was organized on the agenda of the 26 round of Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro’s award for the recitation and interpretation of the Holy Quran. 

Dr. Habash said that the religious institution’s total submission to the authority in Syria had enabled the regime to control decisions within the establishment. 

Habash stressed the importance of the independence of all institutions in Syria, including the religious one and the artists, engineers, lawyers, and all syndicates.

He noted that had there been a union bringing together Syria’s religious body, members of such a union would have been able to elect their president like other existing unions. However, the regime completely controls the religious entity, transforming any administrative decision by the institution into a mere formality.   

According to Habash, as long as the al-Assad regime continues its authoritarian policy of repressing freedoms and protecting the corrupt, government institutions will continue to be run by top directions rather than rightful laws.

Habash concluded by saying that there would likely be more pressure and restrictions on all religious institutions in Syria, including the CJS, which will continue to be instructed to issue fatwas against public interests and Islamists in particular.

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