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Sinai monastery reopens

18 October 2013


Sign of the cross: the shadow of Mount Sinai stretches across the valley at the foot of St Catherine's Monastery, in the Sinai desert, earlier this year

Sign of the cross: the shadow of Mount Sinai stretches across the valley at the foot of St Catherine's Monastery, in the Sinai desert, earlier this ...

MONKS at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai desert, in Egypt, are welcoming pilgrims again after a three-week closure forced on them by the country's military-backed transitional government (News, 13 September). But military action against armed Islamists in the northern Sinai threatens to worsen the plight of Palestinians living in the nearby Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian authorities ordered the closure of St Catherine's in August, after monitoring reports that the sixth-century monastery was about to be attacked. This was a time when Christian property across Egypt was being targeted by groups of Islamists in retaliation for the army's ruthless action against supporters of the deposed President, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But, although St Catherine's has reopened, the atmosphere in the region is far from normal. Army and police units have been deployed around both the monastery and the town of St Catherine's, with pilgrims reaching their pilgrimage destination under armed guard.

The Greek Orthodox monks also say that their financial plight and that of the 400 Bedouin agricultural workers employed by the monastery remains critical. Tourism in Egypt has declined dramatically as a result of the unrest of the past two years, and a return to the days when the hotels, shops, and other visitor facilities at St Catherine's were packed seems a distant prospect.

While Cairo and other large cities continue to witness clashes between Morsi supporters and the security forces, the Egyptian military is preoccupied with a campaign to eliminate a threat to its authority in the northern Sinai, about 160 miles north of St Catherine's. Jihadi Islamists, operating in a region close to the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, have been carrying out almost daily attacks on army positions, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 troops. In an intensified military response over recent days, dozens of what the authorities call "armed terrorists" have been arrested, and large stocks of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, have been captured.

The military's suspicion is that the Jihadists are receiving support from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, a territory governed by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, the army has been closing tunnels - more than 150 since June - used to smuggle goods of all kinds in and out of Gaza. It is also removing buildings regarded as a security threat on the Egyptian side of the frontier.

Although Hamas has denied supporting the Jihadists in Sinai, the steps being taken by the Egyptian authorities are isolating the Gaza Strip still more by restricting its access to the outside world. Food and other essentials have long been brought into Gaza by tunnels; closing these seems certain to increase the economic suffering in this overcrowded and impoverished territory.

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