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The future status of the Alawis, especially in Syria, is an open question. Demographically, they are the second largest religious group in Syria after the Sunnis. The government of Syria remains in the hands of the Alawi al–Assad family, which has done everything to strengthen the community’s position in the country. However, with the advent of the Arab Awakening, the present Syrian government is under attack and it is not likely that the community will maintain its privileged standing if President Bashar al–Assad and his government should fall. There are concerns that a Sunni–Alawi civil war with persecutions will break out if violence escalates. So much is in flux and the situation is so complicated that this must be considered merely conjecture.

The Druze represent a religious minority that was for the most part unknown in the West until the civil war in Lebanon. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land sometimes encounter Druze, whose religion is not Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

Found in Israel, Lebanon and Syria, the Druze form a self–enclosed minority of about a quarter of a million people. Druze neither accept converts nor recognize converts from their tradition. Intermarriage between Druze and non–Druze is strictly forbidden.

Though fairly secretive, it is known that Druze consider themselves monotheists who believe in the one God. Al–Hakim, the sixth Fatimid (Shiite) Caliph of Egypt (996–1021), an eccentric figure who disappeared into the desert one night, plays a quasi–divine salvific role among Druze. Also, unlike orthodox Christians and Muslims, Druze believe in the transmigration of souls. Believers are divided into the elites who have access to a “wisdom” that is secret even to other Druze who are not members of the elite.

Mandaeans are another religious minority. Until the U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most Mandaeans lived in southern Iraq. Numbering between 60,000 and 70,000, many since have been displaced from their homeland.

Mandaeanism is part of the great Gnostic tradition that struggled with Christianity in the early centuries of the Christian era. Though it rejects Jesus, it traces its ancestry to John the Baptist, a belief reflected in its frequent use of baptism for purification. For Mandaeans as for most Gnostics, salvation is obtained through the salvific knowledge of the origin of the soul.

Historically, Mandaeans have been hostile toward Christians and Jews. However, because they have a sacred text — the Ginza — and a prophet in John the Baptist, they have been treated by Muslims as one of the People of the Book and, until recently, left in peace to practice their faith.

Zoroastrians, or Parsis, are the spiritual descendants of Zoroaster, the sixth–century B.C. Persian prophet and reformer. Until the Muslims conquered the Persian Empire in the seventh century, Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia.

Though monotheists, Zoroastrians believe in a divine principle of good — emanating from Ahura Mazda (“wise lord”) — and a principle of evil, which is traced to free will at the beginning of creation. Good and evil struggle throughout history.

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Tags: Syria Middle East Muslim Diversity Arab Spring/Awakening