• FEATURES \ Apr 03, 2001
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    Samaritans, Smallest Minority in Holy Land, Straddle Religious Divide
Samaritans, Smallest Minority in Holy Land, Straddle Religious Divide
By Daniel Williams

NABLUS, West Bank, April 8

A full rainbow appeared to the east of Mount Gerizim before sundown Saturday as if on cue, just before the Samaritans, who regard themselves as the original Israelites, began their ancient Passover sacrifices. Deputy chief priest Ibrahim Tawfik quickly began quoting the story of Noah, recounting how a rainbow appeared to mark the end of the biblical flood.

"It is a sign. Blessings are to come," he said.

Blessings are intensely valued among the Samaritans, the smallest religious minority in the Holy Land, and historically among the most beleaguered. Their numbers, which once reached into the millions, total now 636. They are geographically split between the West Bank and Israel. Buffeted by centuries of turmoil under rule by Roman, Christian and Muslim empires, they now walk a tightrope in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet these are good times for the Samaritans. Being neither Jewish nor Muslim, they have found advantage in their symbolic value to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Samaritans living in Israel have long been granted Israeli citizenship, and two years ago, Israel permitted the Samaritans who live in the West Bank to obtain Israeli passports. The Palestinian Authority, which rules portions of the West Bank and issued them its own passports, lets them hold both.

For the West Bank Samaritans, the passport privilege means they are immune from the frequent blockades of Palestinian towns and villages that bedevil Arab residents in the occupied territories. "For both Israel and the Authority, it was a chance to show their rule can be benign," said Husney Kohen. "For us in the West Bank, it is obviously a benefit. We are connected more easily to the outside world. We can work in Israel and shop in Nablus."

The Samaritans are best known in the West for the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped an injured stranger while others walked away. This deed was no help in maintaining their lands, which once stretched for miles. War and conversion, especially during the long domination of the Ottoman Empire, diminished their population.

This history has made the Samaritans wary of getting embroiled in conflict with surrounding peoples. During the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, they moved their entire West Bank community from central Nablus up to Mount Gerizim, their sacred mountain.

Politically, there are two kinds of West Bank Samaritans: those who identify themselves as primarily Palestinian for civil purposes, and those who refuse to answer the question of who, nationality-wise, they are. "Politics is just off-limits to a lot of us. We are too few to get involved," said Shukri Altef, who works for the Israeli bus line Egged.

The Samaritans devoutly cling to Mount Gerizim. They believe it is here, not in Jerusalem, where the tablets of the Ten Commandments found a home after the Israelites escaped Egypt, wandered the desert and arrived in the Promised Land.

The original location of the Holy of Holies is the source of ancient enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews, who say the tablets were housed inside the temple in Jerusalem under King David.

"We don't buy this 'Next year in Jerusalem' business," said retired schoolteacher A.M. Sadaqa, in reference to the climactic phrase spoken by Jews at their own Passover celebration to exhibit their devotion to the rival holy site.

Gerizim, which means blessings, looms high above Nablus, an ancient city and regional capital of an inland agricultural empire. The Samaritans have set up a community of new houses faced in creamy limestone, a sign of recent well-being. Many Samaritans moved in the early 20th century to Holon, near the coast, to get jobs at Jaffa, then a major seaport. But all gather at Gerizim each Passover for an evocative ceremony dominated by the slaughter of sheep, whose entrails are burned as part of the offering to God, and the rest roasted and eaten. The sacrifice is held in a revamped altar area, with new grandstands paid for by the Palestinian Authority.

Except for a few gaudily dressed high priests, the men and boys wear white. Some are in robes, some in overalls. The priestly caste, said to be descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, wear turbans; the rest, any hat. Some youths wear baseball caps, jauntily reversed.

The high priest, draped in a white shawl, reads from the third chapter of Exodus, where God directs Moses to lead the Israelites from slavery to the "land of milk and honey." The rest sing and chant as they cut sheep throats. Each man marks his forehead with blood.

Participants dip bouquets of thyme in the blood and run home to smear their doors, as the Israelites did in the Exodus episode, letting the Angel of Death know he should "pass over" their houses while on the way to kill the firstborn sons of Pharoah's Egypt.

"This is the best place on Earth," said Altef Shukri.

Women sit on the sidelines, although they join in the feast.

Of course, troubles are far from over for the Samaritans. The current Palestinian uprising has revived a sense of insecurity. This Passover, Israeli troops oversaw the sacrifice from rooftops, rifles in hand, presumably to guard against an Arab intrusion. And the army recently set up an artillery position on the flanks of Mount Gerizim, from which they exchange fire with Palestinians below.

"Of course this is worrisome. It means someone could get hurt in Nablus -- or up here," said Kohen. "They should put the weapons somewhere else. The mountain over there, if they must," he continued, pointing across the valley.

The peak on the other side is called Ebal, the mountain of curses