Ancient Sinai monastery targeted by Islamic militants in Egypt a week after Coptic church bombings

Special police forces stand guard as a Greek monk is seen on the top of a church at St Catherine's monastery, in the Sinai Peninsula, south of Egypt, in this file photo taken December 8, 2015.Reuters

Islamist gunmen attacked security forces near St Catherine's Monastery in Egypt's south Sinai yesterday, killing at least one police officer and injuring four others outside one of the world's most important and oldest Christian sites.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack on a police checkpoint about 800 metres from the entrance to the monastery, which comes just 10 days before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Egypt.

The incident follows two deadly suicide bombings on Coptic Christian churches last week, which were also claimed by Islamic State and which plunged the country into mourning and marked one of the bloodiest days for the country's Christian minority in decades.

St Catherine's, founded in the 6th century and located at the foot of Mount Sinai, is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Egypt's Christian minority, which makes up about 10 per cent of the country's 92 million people, has increasingly been targeted by Islamist militants, with three deadly church attacks in the span of four months.

In February, scores of Christian families and students fled North Sinai province after a spate of targeted killings.

A successful assault on St Catherine's would be the latest challenge to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has pledged to protect the religious minority as part of his campaign against extremism.

Egypt has for years been battling an Islamist insurgency in the rugged and thinly populated northern Sinai, which gained pace after the military overthrew President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

By contrast, attacks in Egypt's southern Sinai, a popular destination for tourists dotted with Red Sea resorts, are rare.

Security sources told Reuters that security had been put on high alert at tourist facilities across southern Sinai after the attack.

The attack in southern Sinai comes as Russia is expected to make a long-awaited decision on whether to restore flights to the Sharm el-Sheikh resort after a Russian airliner was downed in 2015, dealing a serious blow to the area's tourism industry, which relies heavily on Russian visitors.

Egypt's tourism industry, a crucial source of hard currency, has suffered in the years of turmoil that followed the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as well as from the suspected bombing of the Russian plane, which killed all 224 on board.

Israel took the unusual step earlier this month of barring its citizens from crossing into the Sinai peninsula, saying the threat of attacks in the area inspired by Islamic State and other jihadi groups was high.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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