ONE of Christianity's oldest and most revered places of prayer
and worship, St Catherine's Monastery (above), in the Egyptian
Sinai desert, is struggling to survive after being forced to close
its doors to visitors in July. The military authorities ordered the
monks to ban public access to the sixth-century monastery after a
string of attacks on churches and other Christian property across
Egypt when President Mohammed Morsi was forced out of office.
The monastery, and the nearby town with the same name depend on
pilgrims and tourists for their livelihood. The authorities gave no
specific reason why the holy site had to close, but some reports
say that the order followed a failed attempt to kidnap a monk, and
rumours about an attack on the monastery.
"Despite having more time to pray and practise, now that our
priests live without crowds of visitors, we are suffering a major
financial crisis, and we cannot cover the monastery's expenses and
dozens of families that we constantly support," a member of the
monastery's Holy Council, Fr Paolos, told the online publication
"We respect the Egyptian government, and we will continue to
close if they require the closure. But we will have to drastically
cut down salaries and other expenditures. We are saddened to lose
the income we shared with the Bedouin community."
The number of visitors to St Catherine's declined in 2011, the
year of the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Over
the previous seven years, it had received about 4000 visitors a
Sheikh Mousa al-Gebaly, the founder of a series of guest houses
and other tourist facilities close to the monastery, and a member
of the Bedouin Gebaliya tribe, said that he had not received a
single guest since the first week of August. "Everyone is out of
business since the monastery's shutdown," he said. "The lodges, the
camel stables, the safari guides, and even the supermarkets and
Every tourist entering the town of St Catherine's is required to
pay a government fee of the equivalent of £3. Fr Paolos said that
the monastery and the community had long demanded a share of this
revenue. Now, more than ever, he said, financial help from the
government was urgently needed.
Aside from those involved in the tourism sector, St Catherine's
Monastery employs 400 workers from the surrounding Bedouin
community on its farms, producing olives, grapes, and honey. Their
future, too, is now in jeopardy because St Catherine's is running
out of money to pay wages.