Syria Passes New Constitution, Bars Non-Muslims From Presidency

Syria's new constitution may have passed a referendum on Sunday, but Christians are protesting the inclusion of an article that would prevent a non-Muslim from being the country's president.

The constitution passed with 89.4 percent approval, according to Syrian state television. Syria also claims that 57.4 percent of voters turned out for the election, although international diplomats estimate the actual turnout was closer to five percent.

Many opposition members boycotted the timing of the measure, saying that they could not effectively vote while fights between the government and the rebels continued to flare up across the country.

Additionally, those who did vote were subject to almost no fraud prevention measures. Without voter ID cards, a voter registration list, or ink markings on voters' hands, it was very easy for individuals to cast votes at many different election centers, observers contend. 

Under the new constitution, embattled President Bashar al-Assad could remain in power through 2028, in spite of the protests against his rule currently occurring across the country that has resulted in over 7,500 deaths, according to the U.N.

The Baathists claim that the new constitution is a step forward, since it officially removes a provision from the old constitution that decalred the Baath party the "head of state and society." They say the new constitution will be based on "pluralism," although most of the country's political power will still be vested in the presidency.

Many groups of Syrian Christians had supported the Assad regime, believing that if the government collapses, they may experience more religious persecution under the next government.

That support, however, has not guaranteed Christians equality under the Assad regime or the new constitution.

Although Syria's new constitution says that "citizens are equal in rights and duties, without discrimination on grounds of… religion or creed," and "no political activity shall be practiced… on religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, or professional basis," there is at least one section of the document that clearly favors citizens of one faith above all others.

Article 3, section 1 specifically states: "The president has to be part of the Muslim faith."

This provision has been a part of Syria's constitution since it was first written in 1920. Although former president Hafez al-Assad released a draft of the constitution omitting this restriction in 1973, conservative Muslims protested until the mandate was returned.

Although Christians only account for about 12 percent of the population and a Christian presidential candidate would be very unlikely to win an election, many in the region feared that removing Article 3 from this draft of the constitution would have reignited the public outrage seen in 1973.

For many Christians in the region, the continued restriction of their political rights leaves them with no good choice for the country's future.

If they continue to support Assad's regime, they find themselves in opposition to most of the international community. Also, as this latest constitution proves, they have little hope for gaining more rights in the future because of their loyalty.

On the other hand, should a Syrian power vacuum allow a group such as the Muslim Brotherhood to take power, they might become even more marginalized.

As one Syrian pastor said to Open Doors, an international ministry supporting persecuted Christians, "Currently, Christians are not under direct attack. But we don't know if things change how they will treat us."

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