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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 14:24 GMT
Ancient community seeks brides abroad
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kiryat Luza, West Bank

After years of trying to find a bride within the Samaritan community, Yair Coen found a mail-order bride - from Ukraine.

Samaritan Yair Coen and his wife Alexandra
More and more Samaritan men are marrying outside the community

"There are no women better than Samaritan women," says the 45-year-old Mr Coen, standing beside his blonde 22-year-old Ukrainian wife, Alexandra.

"But I had no luck. I was forced to go overseas."

For almost 3,000 years the Samaritans, an ancient people descended from the Kingdom of Israel, have been a continual presence in the Middle East.

Once there were 1.5 million Samaritans in the region, but following centuries of forced conversion and persecution the community now numbers just 704.

Warm welcome

Within the tiny population, the issue of marriage is of extreme importance to the Samaritans if their unique way of life is to continue.

Throughout our history we have struggled with this marriage issue... But I'm sure we will still be here in thousands of years
Zevulan Altif
Samaritan community leader

But recently the community has been facing another crisis - a shortage of marriageable women.

For every four single men, there are roughly three women.

As a result, a number of Samaritan men are searching for brides far from home - mainly in Eastern Europe and Russia.

In the last few years, six men from the community have taken such brides.

Mr Coen, a trader, says that they are welcomed in the community.

Neutrality amid strife

"They are good for our future," he says, "because our numbers are increasing."

Mount Gerizim
Samaritans regard Mount Gerizim as holy

The Samaritan religion is based on the Torah, the Jewish holy book. The Samaritans say that they are the true religion of the ancient Israelites - as opposed to mainstream Judaism.

They claim to have escaped the mass deportations carried out by the Assyrians who conquered areas of the northern Kingdom (the West Bank) in approximately 721 BC.

The Samaritan community is now settled in two areas.

One community lives in Kiryat Luza, a village in the West Bank beside Mount Gerizim, which they consider their holiest site.

The other community is near the Israeli city of Holon.

The Samaritans stress their neutrality when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that they must get on with both parties to survive.

New rituals

Non-Samaritans joining the community must accept its culture and traditions. But many potential brides are unwilling to do so.

One custom is the purifying ritual, which states that women must be completely separated from their family for seven days during menstruation.

At the beginning the community was very curious about me. They asked me how I cook and clean. But they don't do that any more
Elena Altif
Recent Samaritan bride
"The period of impurity is very difficult for me," says Alexandra. "It's not comfortable to be on your own for seven days. I always like to be active."

Another woman from outside the community is 29-year-old Elena Altif. She emigrated to Israel from Siberia, Russia in 2000.

She was Jewish and met her husband while working in a toy factory in the large West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel.

They married four years ago and now have a 13 month old baby.

Ms Altif says that she had problems with the language; she speaks Hebrew but most of the inhabitants of Kiryat Luza communicate in Arabic, and the isolation of village life took time to get used to.

Belief in future

But she stresses that she has come to embrace her new community as they have embraced her.

"At the beginning the community was very curious about me," she says. "They asked me how I cook and clean. But they don't do that any more."

And although the issue of marriage may seem pressing, most Samaritans say that the community is in good health.

In 1917, the community almost disappeared, its number falling to just 146 people.

"Throughout our history we have struggled with this marriage issue," says Zevulan Altif, a community leader.

"Sometimes there are more men than women or the opposite. But I'm sure we will still be here in thousands of years."

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