NABLUS, West Bank -- The old priest stroked his white beard and scowled at the ceiling, as though reading in the peeling plaster the rebuke of generations of Samaritan high priests.
"They will say of me, it was in his time that the Torah scrolls were stolen," said Yousef Abu At-Hasan, 77.
Two antique manuscripts stolen from the tiny band of survivors of the biblical Samaritans have reminded them of their vulnerability. And a ransom demand for millions of dollars has reminded them of their powerlessness.
"It's not a question of money. It's a question of stealing part of our spiritual treasure," said Benyamin Tsedaka, a leader of the 583 Samaritans who remain of a nation that in the sixth century exceeded 1 million.
The theft has added to a saga of Samaritan artifacts stolen, sold, or lost over the centuries. The Samaritans have managed to keep only a few ancient texts.
The rest -- sold or stolen -- were scattered in the nether world of the illicit antiquities trade, surfacing in museums and private collections from St. Petersburg, Russia to Washington.
Desperate efforts to retrieve the latest stolen texts, written by hand on the skins of ritually sacrificed lambs or goats, have led the Samaritans into a clandestine meeting with thieves, appeals to world leaders, and a political union with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"We have no power to fight for our goals," said Mr. Tsedaka. "And no government in the area has done anything to force the thieves to turn back the manuscripts."
For 3,000 years, the Samaritans have studied and copied their Torah -- the first five books of the Bible -- from their Nablus base near the mountain they consider holy, Mount Gerizim.
Mount Gerizim is a hard and cold mountain, with few trees to blunt the sharp winter wind. The Samaritans have built modern stone homes there but many still move to the warmer creases of Nablus, at the foot of the mountain, in the winter.
Since Biblical times they have feuded with the Jews over theological questions and whether Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim is most holy. They already were outcasts when Jesus shocked his fellow Jews by drinking water drawn by a Samaritan woman and spinning parables around the Samaritans to teach brotherly love.
At times, it seemed they would be extinguished as a people. In 1917, only 146 remained. They survived by adapting with chameleon resilience. About half the community left Nablus to build a neighborhood in an industrial suburb of Tel Aviv, where they are indistinguishable from Israelis. They are citizens, serve in the Israeli army, and speak Hebrew. The others, in Nablus, have kept the Arab ways, language and dress of their neighbors on the West Bank.
Ties that bind
Yet the two consider themselves inseparable. They cling to their religion, its strict kosher rules and ancient rites of worship. And they cling to their pride as the "true Israelites" who remained in the Holy Land since ancient times while Jews wandered in exile.
The two communities of Samaritans reunite annually at the highlight of their religious year, Passover. Forty sheep are ritually sacrificed and cooked for a feast on Mount Gerizim.
In March, three strangers stopped in the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus the Saturday before Passover. The Samaritans, accustomed to tourists, thought little of them.
Later, they believe, the strangers came back and broke into the synagogue. Crossing the large open room, furnished only with carpets for prayers, they threw back the purple curtain of the altar -- the "Holy of Holies" -- and opened an ornate wooden cabinet.
Discarding the printed copies, they took the two most valuable items they found: a scroll of the Samaritan Torah in an inscribed copper case, and another handwritten Torah on parchment bound in red covers, both said to be 700 years old.
The thieves slipped the Torah scroll from the case and left the metal decoration on steps near the synagogue. It was a costly choice: The casing, made in 1521, is worth more than the scroll. It might have fetched several million dollars, said Mr. Tsedaka.
"Nobody saw them," said Mr. At-Hasan. "They were gone in the night."
All things ancient from this region, the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity, command fascination -- and a price.
The Samaritan writings are prized pieces. Their version of the Bible has 4,000 to 6,000 differences from the version used by the Jews -- valued variations. The Samaritans continued to write in the ancient script, unlike even the Jews, who switched to Aramaic lettering in their old texts.
To even the earliest Western visitors, the odd, boxy letters evoked the ancients. Some collectors bought the old texts from Samaritans, others stole. Many had help from the Samaritans themselves -- a Russian Jew named Abraham Firkovich wrote of visiting Nablus in 1864 and buying four heavy sacks full of handwritten Samaritan manuscripts from a Samaritan "engaged in stealing from the sanctuary."
"For the last 400 years, our community was so poor they were forced to sell their spiritual treasures just for bread," said Mr. Tsedaka, who has founded the Samaritan Studies Institute in Holon, near Tel Aviv, and tracks Samaritan antiquities.
"The result of this sad story is that we have 4,000 ancient Samaritan manuscripts all over the world. And the Samaritans themselves only have 35 Torah books left -- less than 1 percent of the total," he said.
Samaritans seek help
The Samaritan leaders reported the latest theft to Israeli authorities, the Interpol worldwide police network, American officials -- anyone who would listen. But it was Mr. Arafat, then preparing to expand his Palestinian authority into Nablus, who brought the first word. The documents apparently were smuggled to Jordan, and unnamed thieves were demanding $7 million for their return, he said.
A month later, Radwan Altif Samri, a prominent Samaritan businessman in Nablus, got a call from Palestinian officials telling him to hurry to Amman, Jordan.
He checked into the Grand Palace Hotel, and waited. At 11 p.m., he said, a man telephoned his room, and together they drove to a vacant lot. Three men waited there in an old, green Fiat. Mr. Samri got in the car, and without a word, the men removed two documents from nylon sacks.
"It was our Torahs. When I saw the scroll, I kissed it and tears came from my eyes," he said. The thieves took the manuscripts back. They had made their point: The documents were intact. The ransom was now down to $2 million, Mr. Samri's contact told him.
"What can we do? The Samaritans don't have that money," said Mr. Samri. "And if we pay this, what will stop them from coming again, maybe with guns this time, and taking something else?"
Arafat's key role
The Samaritans are counting on Mr. Arafat. They note that a Samaritan from Nablus has just been elected to the new Palestinian Council.
"We are in good hands with Yasser Arafat. He has a good attitude toward us," said the secretary of the Samaritans, Farouk Altif Samri.
But Mr. Arafat's hand-picked mayor of Nablus, Rassan Shakka, who has passed along communications from the thieves, is pessimistic.
"Now everything is off. They cut off the contact, and we have lost our link to them," he said last week. "Maybe they are trying to sell it to someone else."
"There are certain rich private collectors who buy this kind of stuff," said Weston Fields, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation in Jerusalem and an expert in ancient manuscripts.
"I doubt a museum would buy it, but they would display it if someone else bought it," he said. "The fact that the manuscript is stolen decreases its value. You can't show it as openly as you might, so the bragging value of owning it decreases."
"For us, the value of this is that it is an integral part of our pride," said Mr. Tsedaka. "The Samaritans are the last echo that remain in the world of the ancient Israelite tradition. We don't have any doubt about our origin, but we do have a doubt about our future. We need these treasures for our future existence."