Two weeks after killing 47 Egyptians in twin church bombings on Palm Sunday, the Islamic State claimed a fresh attack on the ancient monastery of St. Catherine on the southern Sinai peninsula.
One policeman was killed and four injured during an exchange of gunfire at a checkpoint about half a mile from the monastery entrance. Police were eventually able to gain control and force the militants to flee, according to the Ministry of Interior as reported by Ahram Online.
ISIS claimed responsibility in a terse statement via their official news agency, Amaq. However, local speculation suggested it may have been a result of skirmishes between disgruntled tribes and the government.
St. Catherine’s is named after the fourth-century martyr from Alexandria, and was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The monastery belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2003.
In the mid-19th century, the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus was discovered in St. Catherine’s ancient library, at the time the oldest near-complete text of the Bible. The library boasts more than 8,000 early printed books, and is considered second only to the Vatican in collection of early biblical manuscripts.
“We admire the monastery for digitizing its collection for research,” said Tharwat Wahba, a professor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, noting especially the ninth-century Arabic translation. “Its manuscripts witness to the oldest sources of our Bible.”
Thousands of pilgrims flock every year to St. Catherine’s, hiking to the peak of the mountain and visiting the traditional site of Moses’ burning bush. A tree within its walls is said to be organically related to the biblical original.
In addition to continuing its attacks on Christians, ISIS may likely have targeted the monastery to impact tourism, a major sector of the Egyptian economy.
Popular Red Sea resorts a few hours east of St. Catherine’s draw winter beachgoers from Russia and other European nations. Russia has been expected to lift a ban on flights soon, following extensive security improvements.
Reuters reported security services are on high alert.
“Of course if you hit the Sinai and St. Catherine’s, tourists will stay away,” said Ibrahim Morgan, a Coptic tour guide.
“But I think this is a message also for the pope.”
The attack comes only 10 days before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Egypt and participate in an international peace conference with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s foremost institute of Islamic learning.
In addition to St. Catherine’s Christian heritage, a mosque was built during the Cairo-based Fatimid Caliphate at the beginning of the 12th century. It contains a copy of a reputed letter from Muhammad, granting protection to the monastery.
St. Catherine’s boasts excellent relations with the local Bedouin tribes, who have developed an adjacent town and ecotourism expeditions into the desert.
“It is a good witness of how Christians and Muslims can live together,” said Wahba.
Though controlling no formal territory, ISIS has waged a fierce battle with the Egyptian government in the northern Sinai cities of Rafah, Arish, and Sheikh Zuweid. Two months ago, hundreds of Christian residents fled the area, facing death threats and the killing of several Copts in the course of a few weeks.
The presence of the Islamic State in the south of Sinai would be an alarming development. Earlier this month, Israel barred its citizens from the area, fearful of terrorist threats.
“It is a bit terrifying if this is ISIS,” said Wahba, “and gives a negative impression about south Sinai.”