Visiting the Samaritans on their holy West Bank mountain
(Click on the photo above for a slideshow on the Samaritans)
Samaritan High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa was relaxing on his porch watching Al-Jazeera on a wide-screen TV when we dropped by his home to talk about his ancient religion. “I like to keep up with the news,” the 83-year-old head of one of the world’s oldest and smallest religions explained as he turned down the volume. Told we wanted to make him part of the news, more precisely part of a feature on Samaritanism, he sat up, carefully put on his red priestly turban and proceeded to chat away in the fluent English he learned as a boy under the British mandate for Palestine. Our interview with him and other Samaritans were the basis for my feature “Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith.”
(Photo: High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa at his home, 19 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
Visiting the descendants of the biblical Samaritans was the last stop in a series of visits in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank I made after covering Pope Benedict’s trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Leaving Jerusalem with Ivan Karakashian from our bureau there, we drove through Israel’s imposing security barrier to Ramallah, picked up our Nablus stringer Atef Sa’ad there and then drove north along the web of priority roads that link the spreading network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Israel. Signs of the Israeli-Palestinian face-off were all around — Israeli army patrols and checkpoints, guarded Jewish enclaves flying the Star of David flag on the hills and Palestinian villages with their mosques and minarets in the valleys. The tension seemed to melt away, though, when we turned onto a narrow road to wind our way up Mount Gerizim to the Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza.
The West Bank Samaritans used to live in Nablus, the nearest Palestinian city, but left it when the first intifada in 1987 brought the tension too close for comfort. The Samaritans get along with both Israelis and Palestinians and many have identity papers from both sides, Husney Kohen, one of the faith’s 12 hereditary priests, told us at the community’s small museum in Kiryat Luza. But their custom of not taking sides and keeping secrets meant that gunmen began using their neighbourhood as a place to execute enemies in broad daylight without worrying about witnesses. “We weren’t hurt, but we were afraid,” he said. Now living on their holy mountain, the Samaritans feel safe.
The museum looked like a treasure trove of ancient Judaica, but Kohen made sure to point out the differences between Samaritanism and Judaism. “We are Israelites but not Jewish … we have 7,000 differences between our Torah and the Jewish one,” he declared as he showed a copy of a Samaritan scroll he said was the oldest book in the world. The original is locked in their temple for safe keeping. The museum boasted genealogical lists dating generations back to Adam and a few paintings of biblical scenes where Samaritans play a cameo role.
Amid all the ancient artifacts, it seemed strange to hear Kohen talk about Samaritan boys meeting girls over the internet or Samaritan couples going to Israeli hospitals for pre-nuptual genetic tests. Samaritan life is governed by strict laws, especially those isolating women during menstruation and after childbirth, but Samaritan women do not keep any other kind of purdah. In fact, they stand out in Nablus — along with the few Christian women there — walking around in western clothes and flowing hair among the veiled and covered Muslims. Kohen’s oldest daughter works as a journalist for the Palestinian news agency Wafa, the second is a pharmacist and the third is studying English at the university in Nablus.
(Photo: Samaritan priest Husney Kohen with a copy of the faith’s ancient Torah in the Samaritan museum, 19 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
Kohen caught our attention by mentioning mail-order brides and we wanted to pursue that angle, but he said several couples had been burned by intrusive questions from journalists and no longer wanted to give interviews. He mentioned that High Priest Sadaqa’s daughter-in-law was Ukrainian, but wasn’t sure we could see her. When we called on Sadaqa, though, he was more than ready to introduce Shura to us.
The problem was that she wasn’t as ready to be introduced. With her fair hair, black pants and tank top, she could have passed as a European tourist visiting the town. She reluctantly sat for a few minutes to a hail of questions, from Atef in Arabic and Sadaqa in English (for my benefit), and stammered a few shy answers in Arabic.
There was so much we wanted to ask — how did you get here? how do you like it? was it hard to convert? would you recommend this life to other foreign women? — but she suddenly ducked back into the house, saying she had to work in the kitchen. That was the end of our fleeting encounter with one of the women helping to keep Samaritanism alive. (For more on Shura, see below)
While most of Samaritanism’s outside brides have been Jews from Israel, Kohen said three were Muslims and five Christians like Shura. All of them came from far away — the Muslims from Turkey and the Christians from Russia and Ukraine. Seeking converts among the local Muslim majority or the tiny Christian minority in Nablus could strain the good relations the Samaritans have with their neighbours.
Another Samaritan priest, Khader Adel Kohen, said he didn’t want his three sons to marry foreign brides when they grew up. “It’s better to take one from the Jewish community, as long as she converts,” he said. “I have nothing against Russians and Ukrainians, but we don’t know who they are.”
(Photo: Samaritan priest Khader Adel Kohen in Nablus, 19 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
Hearing so much about their strict rules and the struggle to keep the religion alive prompted me to ask Sadaqa if the community had any rebels. Some had left, he conceded, but very few. And are there any atheists? He waved his hand dismissively and frowned. “Thank God, there are none. This is the biggest blessing. A Samaritan would never abandon his religion voluntarily.”
So did Sadaqa, who has travelled the world and studied the scriptures of other religions, have any advice for faiths that were losing their flocks? “I know everything, I see it, but I don’t want to interfere,” he said. “I can lead my community but I haven’t the strength to lead the whole world. Those who preserve their religion, God preserves them.”
Filmmaker Efim Kuchuk and Mark Mejerson interviewed Shura and her husband for their 2007 film “New Samaritans.” Among other things, it shows Samaritans with the genetic defects from intermarriage that also worry the community. Here is a YouTube excerpt: