Law 16 Paves the Way for Iranian Control over Religious Institutions in Syria

Political and legal activists in Syria raised criticisms against the Syrian government this week, following the passing of a controversial law expanding the authority of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, known locally as Awqaf.

The new law, which was ratified by President Bashar al-Assad in mid-September, greatly expands the jurisdiction of the Awqaf Ministry, and grants it absolute authority over religious policy in Syria, and over religious spending.

It also authorises the Awqaf to appoint the Grand Mufti of the country, a position previously appointed directly by the President, and institutes several other changes to established religious institutions, such as changing the names and structures of religious councils, and denying non-Syrians the right to practice religious work in Syria.

The Head of the Awqaf, Minister Mohammad Abdulsattar al-Sayed, praised the new law as a step forward towards regulating religious work in the country.

He told Syrian official media: “For the first time, a law that will allow for the regulation and institutionalisation of religious work in Syria has been approved. The law unambiguously concerns the fight against extremist Takfiri ideology, like that of Wahhabism and The Muslim Brotherhood.” The minister added: “The Awqaf will coordinate with the Ministries of Education and Information to monitor media and educational curricula, in order to expose any Takfiri thought within them.”
Iranian media sources also celebrated the passing of the new law, with official news channel Al-Alam saying it will allow Damascus to regain control over the religious street, which has been experiencing “disorder over the past 15 years”, according to the channel.

However, many Syrian human rights and legal experts voiced strong opposition to Law 16. Judge Khaled Shihabeddine, the head of the Syrian Free Jurists Association, a legal opposition body, told SY24 that the law is only intended to “expand Iranian control over Syria”. The association issued a memorandum on Friday addressed to the UN Security Council, indicating that the real purpose of the new law is to turn Syria Shiite, and to expand Iranian control over the country though forced seizure of religious assets and property, furthering demographic change.

Shihabeddine explained: “The decree allows for the purging of regime dissenters, through labelling them as members of terrorist organisations, like the Muslim Brotherhood.” This is dangerous, according to the Judge, because the law permits the Awqaf to bring such allegations of extremism against anyone, which in all likelihood would lead them to immediately face the death penalty, in complete disregard to due process.

Muneer al-Faqir, a researcher at the Turkey-based Imran Strategic Studies Centre, agrees with Shihabeddine over the seriousness of the threats posed by the new law. In an interview with SY24, al-Faqir said the law is part of an effort to appropriate Sunni religious assets in Syria, and create a religious authority void of sectarian representation, which is welcomed by the Iranians. Al-Faqir added: “The law aims to dissolve the Sunni identity of the Syrian majority among minority sects like Alawites and emerging sects like Shiites, which is very dangerous.” Both Alawites and Shiites receive Iranian support, and are considered allies of the Islamic Republic in Syria.

Al-Faqir emphasised two particularly contentious aspects of the law. The law enables the regime to exercise control over conservative youth, which, according to the researcher, the regime needs in order to avert future political dissent motivated by religion. Additionally, it puts the authority over issuing religious rulings entirely in the hands of the Awqaf Ministry, having previously been under the jurisdiction of decentralised religious bodies. Both these changes ultimately benefit Iran, according to al-Faqir, as control over the Awqaf guarantees Iranian control of religious youth, as well as future religious rulings passed in Syria.