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Ancient Community Faces Population Loss

There are few communities in the world more ancient than the Samaritans. For centuries, the Samaritans have lived in isolation. But now as their numbers diminish, some are looking to the outside world to replenish their numbers. VOA's Jim Teeple has more in this report from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

For nearly 3,000 years, Samaritans have recited their prayers here on Mount Gerizim near the city of Nablus on the West Bank. The prayers, in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, were once recited by more than a million Samaritans. Now there are only 750 left, on Mt. Gerizim and in the Israeli city of Holon.

These ruins overlooking the West Bank are all that remain of the ancient Samaritan temple. Samaritans who live here in Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim are descended from Jews who escaped deportation to Babylon when Assyrians conquered the area in 721 BC. Now they are sandwiched between Palestinians in the city of Nablus and Jews in a nearby settlement.

Isolation has taken a toll. Inbreeding has left many Samaritans lame. Others are deaf and dumb.

This boy and his grandfather, Elazer Sadaqa, say they are direct descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Sadaqa is the Samaritans' high priest. He says his family has lived here for some 150 generations.

He agreed to let Samaritans marry outside the community as a way of saving it. "I, because I am the high priest, gave them permission to marry from where they want to let the blood get good," Sadaqa said. "Also we do not have enough girls."

Sadaqa's son Yair was supposed to follow Samaritan tradition and marry his cousin. But Yair has two deaf and dumb brothers. So he called off the marriage and instead married Alexandra, a young woman from Ukraine. He met her through a matchmaker.

"Since I have two brothers who are deaf and dumb, I decided to bring in help, make us stronger," Yair said.

For Alexandra, the move to Mount Gerizim has not been easy.
"The women here in this family have received me very well," she said. "I now have a family here, but I really miss my family in the Ukraine."

So far, Alexandra and a woman from Russia are the only foreign women to marry into the community. Several more women from Russia and the Ukraine have married Samaritans in the Israeli city Holon. And there are several new babies, all healthy.

Overall there are four Samaritan single men for every three women. Here in Mount Gerizim, the ratio can approach two to one in some age groups. Some Samaritan men never marry. Even so, some Samaritan women say marrying outsiders is not the answer.

Nawal says young people can now undergo tests before marrying and while pregnant to reduce the risk of birth defects. She says Samaritan culture cannot be understood by outsiders. "I think the coming of these women into the Samaritan sect is more negative than positive because we grow up learning about our traditions, and those women are not going to be able to explain to their children about our culture," Nawal said.

Foreign women must live with the Samaritans for six months before they marry -- to see if they can adapt to Samaritan customs, like being separated from others during menstruation.
Isolation and loneliness is a problem for the outsiders. But with the gender ratio in Samaritan communities out of balance, men in this ancient tribe will likely continue looking outside for brides.