Monastery on traditional site of the burning bush is under threat

St Catherine's Monastery(Photo: Berthold Werner)

An Egyptian monastery, fabled to sit on the site of the burning bush God used to speak to Moses, is now under threat of demolition.

In May 2012, ex-army general Ahmed Ragai Attiya obtained 71 administrative orders to demolish the multiple churches in the St Catherine's Monastery, as well as the monk cells, gardens and other places of interest in the grounds.

He argued that these were constructed in 2006 and therefore did not require protection as a historical site.

Then on Thursday, Mr Attiya announced in an interview with the Egyptian television station ONTV that he has used the 71 orders to file an official demolition suit against the monastery in the courts of Ismailiya city.

He is also targeting 10 other Egyptian authorities with the suit, in an attempt to ensure no authority will be able to countermand his legal action. These include the Egyptian president, the ministers of tourism and antiquities, and the governor of South Sinai where the monastery is located.

The lawyer for the monastery, Ihab Ramzy, said that the monks currently living in the monastery were not permitted to even re-paint a wall, much less construct new buildings.

He contends that Egyptian authorities have been treating St Catherine's as a historical monastery far earlier than 2006.

Speaking in Ahram Online, Mr Ramzy said: "[St Catherine's is] one of the oldest, continuously inhabited Christian monasteries, with a history that can be traced back over 17 centuries, and is under the supervision of Egypt's antiquities ministry and UNESCO."

The more accepted history of St Catherine's is that it was founded between 548 and 565 AD, but it did not receive its current name until 800 AD.

Legend has it that the remains of a female Christian martyr were flown to the site by angels, after she had survived an attempted execution by wheel only to be beheaded.

Explaining his motivations for seeking the demolition, Mr Attiya suggests that allowing foreigners to occupy Egyptian land is a risk to national security. He is particularly provoked by the monastery's insistence on flying the Greek flag.

Most of the monastery's 37 monks are Greek.

Mr Attiya also claims that the monks have renamed local landmarks, and are concealing an underground water supply known as Moses' Well or Oyun Moussa.

The Bedouin inhabitants of the region are also targets of Mr Attiya's complaints. He argues that the Jebeliya tribe who have guarded the monastery for the last 1,400 years, have betrayed Egypt by defending what he called "the Greek occupants".

Sheikh Ahmed El-Jebaly, speaking on behalf of the Jebeliya tribe on Ahram Online said: "The peace that has existed between the monks and the Bedouin people has made Sinai an emblem of peace."

A panel of experts has been formed to investigate whether the monastery is indeed historical, and whether Moses' Well is in fact to be found beneath its foundations.

Until that panel reports back, the case has been postponed with proceedings expected to resume in June.

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