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."