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Religion

Samaritan ritual slaughter keeps tradition alive

Every year, the Samaritans in the West Bank celebrate Passover by slaughtering sheep. It's another way to keep traditions alive for a people that's facing genetic problems in an ever-dwindling population.

A brilliant golden sunset cast a spotlight on Mount Gerizim in the southern valley of Nablus in the West Bank on Sunday night. The most sacred site to the world's remaining 800 Samaritans, it's a beautiful, yet unlikely place for a ritual slaughter.

As the sun slipped behind the mountain, 50 men in white boiler-style suits stood over a man-made ditch framed by rocks. They each had a sheep between their legs.

These designated butchers had blades at the ready. The sheep were chased, herded and taunted all afternoon by young boys from the Samaritan community; kicked into a small holding space inside a large stadium until they were bought into the center of the stadium.

A Samaritan holding a knife. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth/ DW)

Preparations for the slaughter on Mount Gerizim

Alongside the 800 Samaritans from the village of Kiryat Luza near Tel Aviv were 1,200 curious tourists, Palestinian and Jewish spectators and media. The heavily guarded stadium on top of the mountain was packed. Another 1,000 onlookers watched from the outside.

Sacrifice and vegetarianism

Yafit, 23, was dressed in a red dressing gown. "I have been taking part in the sacrifice since I was born. Everyone takes part unless they are too sick, like in hospital," Yafit said.

When asked what the meat cooked from sacrificed sheep tastes like, Yafit said it was unlike any other meat. "The meat is holy meat. I eat meat everyday, but this tastes different - it's how it feels," she said.

Samaritan priest Yousef Kohen, 70, told DW he was a vegetarian and didn't like seeing the blood or eating the meat. He gestured to his mouth and said he just touched the meat to his mouth, as it's mandatory to take part in the sacrifice.

"It's a big day for us, because we're coming to sacrifice 50 sheep," he said. "I don't like that people take pictures of killed sheep, but God gave them to us to kill."

Wood smoke and ash filled the air. The chanting and sung prayer in the ancient Aramaic language stopped abruptly as cheers and clapping started.

Westjordanland Passahfest

Not long for this world: a sheep shortly before the slaughter

The butchers simultaneously cut the throats of the sheep. Blood spilt into a ditch and over the stonework of the arena. The blood was then dabbed on each of the men's foreheads as they stopped to hug one another and their families. The blood dots looked similar to a bindi - the small circle placed by Hindus or other south Asian religions to symbolize the third eye. But for the Samaritans, it represents God's "chosen people."

Strict religious traditions

Lutfi Altef, 42, a Samaritan architect who works in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, said he helped build houses for Samaritans that adhered to their strict rules. He described the community as tight-knit and restricted in where they could live.

"We don't eat anything outside of the home and we have to manage the Shabbat in a special way," Altef said. "I can't live in a building that has a radio on during Shabbat. Because of that we have to live inside an enclosed community."

Sacred mountain

The Samaritans believe Mount Gerizim, and not Jerusalem, was the holy place chosen by God. They have their own version of the Torah and holy days similar to Jewish ones.

"We are not Jewish, we never want to be Jewish, we are Israel-people and there is a difference between Jewish and Israel," Yousef Kohen, the Samaritan priest, said.

Members of the community observe laws according to the Torah regarding diet, Shabbat and circumcision. Women must also live separately from their husbands and children during menstruation and isolate themselves for 40 days after giving birth to a boy and 80 days after a girl.

Keeping the community alive

Kohen sitting among colleagues in traditional robes. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth/ DW)

Yousef Kohen (in green) doesn't eat the meat, but still participates in the ritual.

Around the mid-20th century, about 7 percent of Samaritans suffered some genetic defect. Genetic testing before marriage has cut that rate in half. Because of a surplus of men in the community, Samaritans have had to "outsource," Yousef Kohen told DW.

"My son took a wife from Ukraine," Kohen said. "We have to do that, because 30 people in our community have disabilities. We found a way to stop it. Since we have one girl to every three boys, we import women from Ukraine. They are lovely and they are not religious, so it's easy to make them Samaritans."

When asked if they become good Samaritans, he replied: "Very good. They keep the religion of Samaritans more than Samaritans themselves."

Blood on the landscape

In the stadium, the blood of the sacrificed sheep was on the foreheads, hands and clothes of the Samaritans. The audience looked on as the dead sheep were gutted and skewered on long spits. Then they were placed into fire pits. The herb covered meat was served at midnight.

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