Syria passes draconian new law governing religious life

Syria passes draconian new law governing religious life
Syria's Bashar al-Assad has passed a new law that gives a state minister overarching powers to rule over religious institutions in the country.
2 min read
14 October, 2018
Syria's religious institutions have been placed under direct state control [AFP]

A new law granting overarching powers to Syria's ministry of religious affairs was passed on Friday, after Bashar al-Assad signed into law a bill limiting the powers and indepencence of Muslim clerics.

Among the new stipulations is a limit to the term of Syria's top Muslim cleric. It was signed into law by Assad on Friday after parliament amended the bill this month.

Syria's minister of religious endowments, or "waqf" - who can be appointed by the president - now has almost supreme control over Islamic affairs in Syria.

He will also have a role naming the next grand mufti. The Muslim leader will also have his terms renewable every three years.

The current mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun, was appointed by Assad in 2004.

The religious affairs minister will also oversee religious schools, head the Council on Islamic Jurisprudence, and regulate religious programming on media outlets.

Non-Muslim clerics appear to be unaffected by the bill

Muslim imams are now banned from travelling outside Syria or attend any conference - inside or outside the country - without the waqf minister's permission.

Clerics and teachers of religion will also be banned from "stoking sectarian strife" or "taking advantage of religious platforms for political purposes".

Syria's pre-war population was overwhelmingly Sunni, with the Muslim sect making up the vast majority of the opposition that rose up against the Alawite Assad dynasty.

The legislation sparked controversy this month, with many saying it was state meddling into religious affairs.

Others said it was a way to regulate religious discourse in order to "fight extremism."

In a recent television interview, current waqf minister Mohammad Abdulsattar al-Sayyed described it as a "huge achievement".

"This is the first time there's a law that issues controls and standards for religious work and conditions for appointing imams and preachers," he said. 

A Syrian lawyer said he was worried by the expansion of state control over religious life. 

The waqf minister could now intervene "in activities unrelated to the ministry's administration, including in religious literature", the lawyer told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Syria's war has cost at least half-a-million lives, the vast majority civilians killed by regime bombing and shelling.