St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai finds itself embroiled in a…

21-03-2014 11:47 AM

Robeir al-Faris- Michael Victor

It is now 17 centuries since St Catherine’s Monastery has graced the foothill of the highest mountain in the Sinai Peninsula, the highest spot in all the land of Egypt.

Despite its history of unalloyed loyalty to Egypt, one of the world’s oldest monasteries in the world has been targeted with false accusations by the retired army General Ahmed Ragai Attiya. These include spurious allegations that St Catherine’s monks changed the names of landmarks in the area; attempted to hide the 12 renowned Springs of Moses; occupied 20 per cent of the total area of South Sinai; raised the Greek flag on Egyptian land; and turned the monastery into a region occupied by Greece and the European Union. The matter has reached the point where the weekly al-Fath, a Salafi mouthpiece, has accused the monastery of being an agent of the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad.
Explaining the facts
The seeds of this war of words were sown three years ago with a number of articles in Egyptian papers, articles that rejected the very existence of St Catherine’s. A case is now filed with the Ismailiya Administrative Court by General Attiya against the monastery and all those in Egyptian authorities concerned, starting with the President, the Interior Minister, and the South Sinai Governor.
In an attempt to refute the allegations, Bishop Damianos, the abbot of St Catherine’s and Greek Orthodox Bishop of Sinai, explained some facts to ++Watani++. Backed by documents and maps, he remarked: “It is weird that our monks, and there are no more than 37 of us, would be accused of threatening Egyptian national security. These accusations are unfair and unreasonable.” Throughout the ages, Bishop Damianos said, the monks never changed the names of any landmark nor ever attempted to hide the Spring of Moses. The sacred sites in Sinai, he reminded, were revered by all believers: Jews, Christians and Muslims.
“Simply because we respect all sacred landmarks not only in Egypt but all over the world,” Fr Damianos added. “We dare not destroy, conceal or distort any of them. On the contrary, our monks are famous for their efforts to preserve the landmarks and antiquities in Sinai including manuscripts, images and sacred items.
“As for the allegation that Greece and the EU are enemies of Egypt, this would cause diplomatic and political problems, especially since the EU donates millions of Euros to Sinai with the aim of developing the region and affording a better life for the Bedouin.”
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Stretching the boundaries
The former head of the town of Katreen, General Abdel-Aal Sakr, himself spearheaded accusations that the monastery had seized 20 per cent of the land of South Sinai. He issued a decree to confiscate land form the monastery and demolish the church and the mosque at the top of Mount Sinai, seemingly oblivious of the fact that these are under the authority of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority and that the Muhammadan Covenant ought to be honoured. “Yet the total area of the monastery’s property and gardens amounts to no more than some 300 feddans,” Bishop Damianos noted. The property, he said, is scattered in 71 small sites which include minor monastic sites or gardens. The gardens are very old, but we keep and maintain them not for any economic value, but because they represent invaluable heritage. He explained that, in court, the monastery proved beyond doubt that all the sites in question were listed heritage sites.
“It is ridiculous,” Bishop Damianos said, “that St Catherine’s has been accused of building ‘settlements’ occupied by foreigners. The only ‘settlements’ in the town of Katreen constitute a housing project built by the town council.” 
Overly hostile
The issue was discussed at a recent seminar at the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, which hosted General Attiya, and Magdi al-Gohary who represented the Antiquities Ministry. 
On the fringe of the seminar, a publication was circulated that urged the formation of a “front for the defence of South Sinai”, and which described the Greek monks as occupiers. The publication put forward a number of accusations against the monastery. The general climate was overly hostile to St Catherine’s.
Gen. Attiya accused the monks of playing about with the names of the mountains and valleys, and intentional attempts to hide the original Springs of Moses which he claimed to lie within the monastery walls. The current springs, he said, are fake.   
He accused the monastery of occupying 20 per cent of the total area of South Sinai, and raising the Greek flag on Egyptian land, and called for expelling anyone in Sinai who did not hold the Egyptian citizenship. 
Absolved by ministry
Mr Gohary stressed that the antiquities region of South Sinai had sent an official letter to the Ministry of Antiquities, which absolved the monastery of all complaints.
Despite the attempts to obfuscate and confuse, Fr Gregorios al-Sinawi, a monk who represented St Catherine’s, demanded word. He went through all the allegations, explaining that the monastery was not responsible for naming the mountains and other landmarks in Sinai—their names had been there for 17 centuries, ever since the monastery was founded.
Fr Gregorios cited several incidents that evidenced the patriotism of the monks at St Catherine’s. As for raising the Greek flag, Fr Gregorios said this usually happened on feast days when both the Egyptian and Greek flags were flown; this, he said, was with permission from the Egyptian authorities. 
“What is going on,” Fr Gregorios concluded, “is nothing but tilting at windmills.” 
Sheikh Ahmed al-Gebaly who spoke on behalf of the Gebalaya tribe which guards the monastery, agreed. The Sheikh came especially to explain that the Bedouin protect the monastery and would never allow any assault against Sinai territory.
According to Sheikh Gebaly, all the Egyptian sovereign apparatuses are strongly represented in the region: national security, intelligence, and border guards. Not a single rock, he said, could be moved without these apparatuses being informed.
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St Catherine’s: Intertwined in Egypt’s history 
Lucy Awad
The monastery of St Catherine’s sits on the foothill of Mount Sinai where, according to the Scriptures, God spoke to the prophet Moses from a burning bush.
The monastery was first named after Mount Sinai on which it stands, but earned the name of St Catherine in 600AD when the relics of the saint were moved there. It started out as a haven for Egyptian monks who were soon joined by others from various parts of the world, a large number among them were Greek. But the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (c.527 –565) who persecuted the Orthodox Church of Egypt for opposing the decisions of the Chalcedon Council in 450AD, ordered all the Egyptians out of the monastery leaving only the Greek monks. The monastery thus gained the reputation of being a Greek monastery.
St Catherine’s is in possession of the original document of al-Uhda al-Muhammadiya (the Muhammadan Covenant), a peace pact signed by the Prophet Muhammad himself in which he granted peace and safe existence to Christians, their churches and monasteries. 
During the Fatimid era (910 –1171), many successive caliphs reaffirmed their pact with the monks who faithfully retained the copies of the edicts they received from the caliphs. 
In 1106, the monks allowed a small mosque, known today as the Amri Mosque, to be built three metres away from the church tower. Stories claim that this mosque was built for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, at the request of the Vizier, Abul-Mansur Aushtakin.
Loyalty to Egypt
St Catherine’s has a history entrenched in loyalty to Egypt. During the Crusader wars, the monks refused to offer overnight refuge to King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, during his exploratory crusade in Sinai in 1116 AD. Saladin, who was the Sultan of Egypt and Syria at the time, so appreciated the monks’ decision, that he paid a visit to St Catherine’s and praised the monastery and its monks.
In modern times, the monks staunchly stood on the side of Egypt during the six years from 1967 to 1973 when Sinai was occupied by Israeli forces. One story has it that a group of Egyptian soldiers escaping the Israeli troops were allowed into the monastery. When the Israelis insisted on searching the monastery, the monks smuggled the Egyptians out through a secret door that led into an old underground tunnel where a Bedouin met them and escorted them across the Sinai back to the west side of the Suez Canal.
Also during the Israeli occupation of Sinai, Bishop Damianos of St Catherine’s got wind of an Israeli plan to purchase land in the peninsula. He promptly alerted the heads of the Bedouin tribes in Sinai, and all agreed not to sell an inch of land to the Israelis. Once the Egyptian Israeli war was over, President Anwar al-Sadat decorated Bishop Damianos with the Star of Sinai. 
The monastery’s legendary library came in handy during the dispute between Egypt and Israel over Taba, on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. Some 600 historic manuscripts helped to prove beyond doubt that Taba was Egyptian.
21 March 2014
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