samaritan-slideshow (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.”

sadaqa (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. kohen-scroll

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.