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St Catherine’s Monastery struggles after closure

13 September 2013


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 Al-Monitor.

"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 week.

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 restaurants."

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.

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