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Who are Syria's Alawites?

Alawite doctrine differs in many ways from Sunni and Shiite Islam, but Alawites believe they should be respected and accepted as an independent Muslim sect.

LATAKIA, Syria — As an anonymous group of self-professed Alawite leaders recently declared their independence from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — himself an Alawite — it seems appropriate to get to know more about the somewhat obscure sect sometimes known as the third branch of Islam.

Many Alawites are unwilling to discuss their beliefs openly because their foes consider them apostates who believe Imam Ali is God. The Alawites consider these characterizations to be fabrications. Though some Alawites and Shiite scholars try to portray Alawites as Twelver Shiites, the anonymous group says Alawites are an independent, third sect of Islam who follow a mystical interpretation of the Quran.

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