Despite its history of unalloyed loyalty to Egypt, one of the world’s oldest monasteries, dating back to the 4th Century, has been targeted with false accusations by the retired army Major 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.”
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 honored. “Yet the total area of the monastery’s property and gardens amounts to no more than some 300 feddans (acres),” 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.”
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 defense 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.
By Robeir al-Faris- Michael Victor, http://wataninet.com/watani_Article_Details.aspx?A=53351