Originally created 07/05/97

Samaritan fear for bleak future



MOUNT GERIZIM, West Bank - A dozen elementary school children chanted verses from Genesis as their teacher, clad in a long gray robe and red turban, kept time with a stick.

"In the beginning, God created ...," the children intoned in unison in an ancient Hebrew dialect during afternoon religion class.

The youngsters are the only hope for the survival of the Samaritans, who descended from the ancient Israelite tribes of Menashe and Efraim but broke away from mainstream Judaism 2,800 years ago. They now number only 605 people in Israel and the West Bank.

The Samaritans, who over the centuries lost hundreds of thousands of followers to persecution and assimilation, are threatened today by health problems linked to frequent intermarriage and by their precarious position in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Half the Samaritans live in the Israeli coastal town of Holon, south of Tel Aviv, and the other half in a village of new limestone homes on Mount Gerizim, a 2,900-foot peak of rocks and pines overlooking Nablus, a Palestinian-run city and the largest in the West Bank.

The Samaritans - known to Christians mainly through the parable of the Samaritan who helped an injured stranger (Luke 10:30-37) - believe God chose Mount Gerizim as the site for the Jews to build their temple.

On a recent afternoon, 70-year-old high priest Joseph Cohen ambled along the village's only street toward the synagogue, a carpeted prayer hall, and opened the doors to a group of German tourists.

Inside, the priest pulled back a gold-colored curtain and took out the Samaritans' Torah - the five books of Moses enshrined in a silver casing with an engraving of the Ark of the Covenant. After kissing the sheepskin pages, he held up the book to the awed group and chanted a blessing in the Samaritans' Hebrew dialect.

In the community center next door, 14 youngsters, ages 5 to 8, attended catechism classes. Chatting in Arabic during the breaks, the children dutifully mimicked their teacher's ancient Hebrew phrases and tackled books in the Samaritans' alphabet, which has some resemblance to modern Hebrew.

Nine-year-old Abdel Latif worked on memorizing 12 chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy - Moses' blessing of the people of Israel. Mastering the verses is a coming-of-age ritual for young Samaritans whose parents usually throw a party after a successful performance.

But such traditions appear increasingly threatened.

Samaritans are not allowed to marry outside their faith, and with a 3:2 ratio of men to women, many men cannot find a bride.

Samaritan men have been looking for Jewish, Christian and Muslim women in hopes that they will convert. "Do you have any beautiful girls?" the community's secretary, Farouk Samri, hopefully asked a visitor, noting that three of his brothers were single.

Brides may be scared off, however, by the sect's unbending customs, which make it difficult for women to work outside the home, said Hosni Cohen, the Samaritans' historian.

Menstruating women are forced into complete isolation for seven days, barred from touching anything in the house during that time. After a girl is born, mother and child are kept from contact with others for 80 days, while isolation lasts for 40 days after the birth of a boy.

Hosni Cohen, who is married to a cousin, Najwa, said the rules are not as harsh as they sound. During his wife's monthly time of confinement, he said, he does all the cooking and cleaning and each time learns to appreciate her anew for her hard work for him and their two boys and three girls.

The Cohens, members of the priestly caste, may not marry converts, limiting their choices even more. Hosni Cohen said he would not agree to allow his three daughters to marry until a wife was found for his oldest son, 21-year-old Diya.

Intermarriage has led to health problems - some 15 percent of the babies have birth defects, according to Mr. Samri.

But 26-year-old Jacob Cohen, a nephew of Hosni and engaged to one of his cousins, said he is not worried about the health of his future children. "I believe this is in God's hands," he said.

Jacob Cohen said that despite the many restrictions, he would never think of leaving the close-knit community. He operates the Samaritans' TV station, Gerizim TV, from his bedroom. Occasionally, he produces local news and, on each couple's wedding anniversary, broadcasts a video of their marriage ceremony.

Like most Samaritans in the West Bank, Mr. Cohen recently applied for and received an Israeli identity card, in addition to his Palestinian one. The document helps the West Bankers visit their relatives in Holon even during Israeli-imposed security closures of the Palestinian areas.

Mr. Cohen is open about his double identity, saying he keeps one card in the left pants pocket and the other in the right, joking that he often gets confused at Israeli army roadblocks about which one to pull out.

But other Samaritans, including those employed by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority in Nablus, were cagey, apparently fearing they will be accused of being collaborators with Israel.

Hosni Cohen said not offending anyone was key to protecting the community.

"We have an interest in not getting involved in politics for fear that things could be misinterpreted," he said. "We have to worry about our survival."