Middle East

The modern trials of the ancient Samaritans

Samaritan men singing
Image caption There are just over 700 Samaritans left

The Samaritan community has lived in the Middle East for thousands of years - but they are having to find new ways to secure their future, Helena Merriman reports from the West Bank.

On 8 November 2001, during the second intifada (uprising), Joseph Cohen, a 56-year-old Samaritan, was driving home from the Palestinian town of Nablus.

"When I was almost home, I came across two Palestinian boys and they shot me," he says. "The blood ran from me like water."

He lost control of his car and drove into an Israeli roadblock. The Israeli soldiers shouted at him to stop.

"But I couldn't stop the car. And so they also shot me."

There are probably few people in the world who have been shot by both Palestinians and Israelis within minutes of each other.

But, as Mr Cohen says, "this is a short story of our problem."

'Between two fires'

Image caption Joseph Cohen and his sons prepare for Sukkot

Mr Cohen is a priest from the ancient religious sect of the Samaritans. He lives on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank.

It is the Samaritans' holiest place, where their temple once stood and where they say Abraham came to sacrifice Isaac.

In the fifth century, there were more than a million Samaritans.

Now, after years of persecution and forced conversions, there are just over 700 of them left.

They say they are the descendants of the ancient Israelites and they celebrate many of the same festivals as Jews - for example Sukkot, when they commemorate the 40 years that the Israelites spent in the desert.

The Samaritans split from Judaism around 2,000 years ago, but because they speak ancient Hebrew and pray in synagogues, they are often mistaken for Jews.

For those Samaritans living in the West Bank, this can be problematic.

"The Palestinians know we live with Arabic people, but inside their mind, they think we're Jewish," Mr Cohen says.

"And because we also speak Arabic, the Jewish people think we're Arab.

"So we have a big problem - we're between two fires."

Delivery service

For hundreds of years, the Samaritans have been caught between warring groups.

Image caption Some say the Samaritans must open up to the outside world

Before, they would take sides, but now they are trying a new approach - neutrality.

They are building good relations with their Palestinian and Jewish neighbours and are unique in the region for having both Israeli and Palestinian identity papers.

This means they can travel between Israel and the West Bank with ease.

Some entrepreneurial Samaritans are now using their unique status to offer a delivery service to businessmen in the West Bank town of Nablus, just a few miles away from Mount Gerizim.

Many Palestinian businessmen there export goods to towns in Israel, but because they have to go through Israeli checkpoints, deliveries can be slow.

An exporter of car parts to Nazareth and Haifa, Ibrahim, pays the Samaritans to take some of his goods to Israel.

"The Samaritan drivers help us because they can take goods to Israel in one day," he tells me at his shop.

"If you want a Samaritan driver, you call them, they take the goods in their cars and return back to Nablus without the checkpoints."

Struggle to survive

While many Samaritans are benefiting from this unique role in the region, some still fear extinction.

In the 1920s their numbers dropped to just over 100 and it was predicted that they would die out.

The community was struggling with birth defects because of their tradition of marrying other Samaritans, and they were not open to new converts.

But some now say that to survive, they must open up to outsiders.

Mr Cohen tells me that since there are many more men than women, they have to look outside their own community to find potential wives.

Some Samaritans have been using the internet to find brides from other countries, and he introduces me to Alexandra from the Ukraine, who converted to the Samaritan faith and married his cousin.

More recently, an American woman has made history by becoming the first person to convert to the Samaritan faith without marrying in.

Originally from Michigan, Sharon Sullivan now lives with her four children within the Samaritan community.

She says it is sad that more people do not know about this ancient religious sect.

"The good Samaritan story is about a Samaritan who is caring for someone not of their own religion," she says.

"And although the title has been used by so many organisations, the people themselves are unknown."

To address this, Ms Sullivan and Benyamin Tsedaka, a Samaritan historian, have spent the past seven years working on an English translation of the Samaritan Torah - one of the world's most ancient religious texts.

"The more people that know about the Samaritans, the better," she says.

"This will give them security for their future."

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