By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH, Associated Press Writer
MT. GERIZIM, West Bank (AP) - Levi Ben-Avishai Ben-Pinhas, the high priest of the tiny Samaritan community that traces its lineage back to biblical times and has followers in Israel and the Palestinian areas, died Wednesday of old age. He was 82.
The community immediately named a successor, 79-year-old Yefet Shomroni, who will take office after the traditional 30 days of mourning.
The Samaritans number only about 650 people. About half of them live on Mt. Gerizim overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank and the rest in the Israeli town of Holon, near Tel Aviv.
Throughout the years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the community has straddled the line. Most Samaritans carry Israeli identity cards, but some also hold positions in Palestinian Authority (news - web sites) ministries. The new high priest Shomroni, also known by his Arabic name Saloum Samri, is a member of the Palestinian legislature.
The Samaritans claim descent from the people of the northern kingdom of Israel, which separated from the southern kingdom of Judea after the death of King Solomon, about 3,000 years ago.
Most of them speak an ancient Hebrew dialect, as well as modern Hebrew and Arabic. They are known to Christians mainly through the Parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped an injured stranger (Luke 10.30-37).
The funeral of Ben-Pinhas, also known by his Arabic name Ates Naji Samri, was to take place Wednesday on Mt. Gerizim, where archaeologists in 1995 uncovered the remains of what they believe was a copy of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
Ben-Pinhas was high priest for just over three years. His predecessor, Joseph Cohen, died in February 1998. As a young man Ben-Pinhas worked as a clerk in the Nablus bus company, but later he took up astrology, said a cousin, Hosni Samri.
``People would come and consult him about their problems and ask him to tell them what the future holds for them,'' he said.
Ben-Pinhas is survived by a wife, a son, three daughters and three grandchildren.
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