Crisis at St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, and the Pope's call to prayer

The news coming from Sinai is very troubling. This article neatly exposes how various pressures come to bear on the fragile Christian communities in the Middle East. Anyone with any love for icons will know of the veritable monastery of St Catherine, nestled at the foot of Mount Horeb, site of the Burning Bush, the giving of the Torah and the manifestation to Elijah. Christians have lived in the area since the very earliest times, and its monastery has been continuously functioning since before the 4th century. Around it there are four Bedouin tribes whose lives are totally dedicated to the monastery, and completely dependant on the monastery and its visitor for their income. Now, since the new government appointed in Cairo after the overthrow of Morsi the monastery has been closed to all visitor. The monks' income has evaporated, and the Bedouin have been reduced to having to sell their camels which are the bedrock of their income from tourists. The monastery has only been closed three times in living memory, and this is the longest and most corrosive yet.

But this comes at the end of years of petty attrition against the monastery. During recent years the government imposed a $5 entrance fee, none of which went to the monastery or the Bedouin but straight into government coffers. The monastery has about 4,000 visitors a week, so this is a substantial revenue, but not one ministry official has visited the site during this crisis, and no compensation offered for the hardships. This is in contrast with the tourist industries is Aswan, which was compensated by the post Morsi government for the hardship it endured as the Islamist government effectively orchestrated a collapse in the tourism industry across the whole of Egypt's ancient sites.

The ostensible reason for the shut down is that increased attacks on Christians in the area mean that the army cannot guarantee the safety either of the monks of tourists. One of the first Christian martys in the day of rage that followed the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood was a priest in Sinai, and jihadists have been waging violent attacks out of the Sinai desert on Israel for the last few years. So, there are very real concerns but the response of the authorities, who are ostensibly supportive of the Christian presence, is at core indifference. Quite simply they don't really care, and so show nothing other than a token interest in the reality on the ground, and so the community is left to whither away and literally die.

During recent years it is the lethargic indifference from the non-Islamicists in the Middle East that causes the most damage to the presence of Christians in the Middle East. Its not the occasional outburst of violence and bloodshed, that sort of galvanises communities to defend themselves, and for a moment the international community bothers to look beyond its own selfish interests of geopolitical alliances, but once the crisis is over things drift back into a state of inertia, indifference and petty annoyances that make life only just worth living. Marginalised, neglected, patronised, dispirited communities don't inspire their young people, become mired in their own petty jealousies and rivalries, and as a result those with any go in them simply take themselves off to another part of the world where their energy, imagination and talent will have a fairer chance of making a decent life for them and their families.

I have seen this played out in the years I have been in Bethlehem. Some people will rant and rave about Muslims buying land and marrying their daughters, but in general the relationships are calm and pleasant. All Christians have Muslim friends, even if they are kept a little bit at a distance. People work alongside each other and the Palestinian government is keen to show how much it values its Christian Palestinian community. But the latter is as much about ensuring the continued support of the Vatican, both politically and in the massive amounts of money it pours in to hospitals, schools, universities, housing and of course tourism.

On the ground the Christians do relatively well, owning hotels and most of the large tourist shops in Bethlehem. The Christians are the shopkeepers and the lawyers, the middle classes with more than the average but not the elite. I am not sure about the figures for Palestine, but a priest in Jordan once told me that 35% of the wealth of Jordan is in the hands of the 2% Christian minority, and I suspect it is somewhat similar in the West Bank. Yet despite this their position is being gradually made less and less easy, less and less free. For example, its Ramadan so you can't serve food or drink at a social reception held by the Christian university, or it is the Christmas eve party in Manger Square in the centre of Bethlehem but the youths from the surrounding villages have turned up and the Christian girls, with their uncovered hair and modern clothes feels uncomfortable being eyed up as though they were loose and an easy lay, and  so they and their male friends prefer to stay away. Or you have a dispute with a neighbour who is Muslim and feel you have a steeper road to climb to get over the fact that the police and the judiciary are likely to be fellow Muslims and instinctively side with your opponent.

Across Jordan and Palestine Christian communities are not growing as fast as their Muslim neighbours because they follow the western habit in having 2 children, while many rural Muslim families have up to 12. These children, in time, need living space and so the pressure is increased on the cities and towns. At the same time the Christian merchant classes have been coming back and forth between Bethlehem and places such as Chile, Nicaragua, the USA and Europe for over a century, making money and bringing it back home. Increasingly those entrepreneurs delay their return year by year until a year is a decade, and a decade a lifetime. Their properties become neglected, squatters move in, or it is sold to the best bidder which is increasingly made by Muslims, rumoured to be backed by Saudi money. So, step by step the communities are marginalised, the culture neutered and compromised, their freedom to be who they are sapped.

Add to this the external political conflict, be it the Occupation in Palestine, or invasion in Iraq, Islamicisation in Egypt or civil war in Syria and the position of Christians is squeezed beyond endurance.

I hope this gives some substance to your participation in the Day of Prayer this Saturday called by Pope Francis for the Christians of the Middle East. 


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