Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith

Tue Jun 2, 2009 9:58pm EDT
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

KIRYAT LUZA, West Bank (Reuters) - Guardians of an ancient faith with a cameo role in the Bible, the 750 surviving followers of the Samaritan religion are using surprisingly modern methods to keep their tiny community alive.

Internet acquaintances, mail-order brides and pre-nuptial genetic tests have all become familiar to Samaritans trying to plan future generations despite a shortage of young women within their own tight-knit community.

Such openness to the outside world seems baffling in a group that considers itself the original Israelites and upholds rigid traditions about diet, sex and the Sabbath.

Half of the community lives in the tidy modern village of Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim, the faith's holy mountain in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the other half lives in the Israeli town of Holon near Tel Aviv.

Husney Kohen, 65, one of the faith's 12 hereditary priests, saw no contradiction in the lifestyle of a community that numbered more than a million in the late Roman Empire but is now, as he puts it, "the smallest sect in the world."

The Samaritans trace their ancestry to the northern Israelite kingdom that was destroyed by the Assyrians in around 720 BCE. Their faith shares many similarities with Judaism.

"Samaritans are very religious, but we are also modern," Kohen, 65, explained in the community's small museum here lined with scriptures written in the ancient Samaritan language and lists of high priests going back to Aaron, the brother of Moses.

The alternative to adapting was grim. A century ago, the community was down to only 146 members. Some left to work in the Mediterranean port of Jaffa, launching a new community there.   Continued...

<p>Members of the Samaritan sect pray during the traditional pilgrimage marking the holiday of Shavuot atop Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus in this May 31, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/Files</p>