Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Samaritans: The World’s Oldest and Smallest Sect

Samaritans gather to pray on top of Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablus as they celebrate the Shavuot festival at dawn, on June 28, 2020. Photo: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP

By: Ahmed Abdeen

They are not Jews but, despite the strange description, they are members of the world’s oldest and smallest religious sect. They are the Samaritans, followers of the Prophet Moses and the Torah; however, they are not Jews.

According to the Samaritans, their history dates back to the creation of the father of mankind, Adam, and that the Prophet Noah was their tenth grandfather, and Abraham their twentieth great-grandfather, and it goes all the way back to the Prophet Moses bin Imran, who freed them from the slavery of the Pharaohs and led them to the Holy Land in 1798 B.C., which is what they have in common with the Jews. However, they claim that they are the true followers of the religion and that they follow the real Torah after the Jews forgot their rituals and customs and followed a distorted Torah since their return from the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. Therefore, the birth of the sect is essentially based on the dispute that arose between them and the Jews.

The naming of the Samaritan sect is due to two possibilities, the first of which is what the Samaritans today believe is a distortion of the Hebrew word “Shamer,” which means “guardian” or “keeper,” a metaphor for their preservation of the ancient Hebrew religious beliefs in the period of the division of the Kingdom of Israel. The second possibility is attributed to “Samaria,” one of the children of Israel, who owned land in Sebastia and named it “Samaria,” making all those living there, Samaritans.

For many centuries, the Samaritans kept their distance from the Jews, despite the severe difficulties facing the sect’s survival. Samaritans are considered the smallest religious sect in the world, with an estimated total of about 800 followers, divided between the Samaritan village of Loza on Mount Gerizim, Mount Tur, or Mount Baraka near the city of Nabuls in the West Bank. The rest reside in the Holon region, near Tel Aviv. At the beginning of the last century the number of members of the sect was only 100 people but by the end of it they had reached about 604 people, according to the Samaritan Studies Center in Palestine. The Samaritan religion is a non-missionary religion; therefore, procreation is the only way to increase the number of its followers.

The Samaritans say that at one point in time the number of followers had reached three million, but most of them were victims of the war with the Byzantines between 529 and 531 B.C. Their numbers were also affected when Islam entered the region, and some reports indicate that some of the sect’s youth converted to Judaism in order to be able to marry, and that religious leaders resorted to persuading some Ukrainian women to convert to Samaritan and then travel to places where the sect is concentrated, near Nablus and Holon to marry.

“We are the true descendants of the people of the children of Israel. We came to the Holy Land with the leader of the Israeli people, Joshua Bin Nun, and the High Priest, Eliezer Bin Haroun, 3655 years ago, and we have not left the Holy Land,” states Hosni Wassef Al-Samari, the priest of the Samaritan sect and the director of the Samaritan museum.

He also added, “When the children of Israel entered the Holy Land from Egypt, they were divided into two kingdoms: Judea and its capital, Jerusalem, for the Jews, and Samaria, or the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital, Nablus, for the Samaritans. As a result of this division, fierce wars took place between the Samaritans and the Jews, which weakened them, both. We are the ones who have preserved our beliefs, customs, traditions, folklore, music, prayers and our belief in Mount Gerizim that unites us.”

Samaritans consider themselves Palestinian citizens and they had a seat in the Palestinian Legislative Council during the era of the late President Yasser Arafat, while the Israeli authorities also granted all the Samaritans the Israeli nationality, even those residing in Nablus in the West Bank, which is under the authority of the Palestinian state.

In addition to the small number of members in the sect, the Samaritans face many problems and crises, such as the high number of males compared with the females, the division of the sect’s members into two separate areas. As well as the difficulties and obstacles that the Israeli Antiquities Department puts before the sect members in their attempts to restore its holy sites on Mount Gerizim, since the area is located under the Israeli security control according to the Oslo Accords, along with the historical artifacts’ excavation operations that the Israeli department is conducting near the Samaritan holy places, according to the Palestinian News and Information Agency.

The Samaritans were also the victims of the famous robbery of the Samaritan synagogue in the city of Nablus on March 21, 1995, under the Israeli Military government at the time, where books from the Torah were stolen and, despite Palestinian and Jordanian attempt to retrieve them, are still missing.

In terms of belief, the Samaritan religion is based on five pillars, which are the oneness of the one God alone, the prophethood of Moses bin Imran, the messenger of God, the Torah (which are five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), the sanctity of Mount Gerizim, and the belief in the Last Day of Judgment and Punishment.

The Samaritan law is based on the Ten Commandments that were revealed to Moses on Mount Tur in Sinai, namely:

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me

2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain

3. Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy

4. Honor thy father and thy mother

5. Thou shalt not kill

6. Thou shalt not commit adultery

7. Thou shalt not steal

8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife or anything that is thy neighbour’s

10. Preserve the absolute sanctity of Mount Gerizim.

As for the obligations of the Samaritan religion, they are prayer, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimage, and among the customs that the Samaritans adhere to are animal sacrifice, something that the Jews abandoned centuries ago.

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