Journey To An Ancient Monastery Deep In Egypt’s Besieged Sinai

The sixth-century Saint Catherine’s Monastery is a treasured Christian pilgrimage site in a region increasingly controlled by ISIS.

Overlooking Saint Catherine's Monastery
Overlooking Saint Catherine's Monastery
Domenico Quirico

SINAI â€" The intercity bus that left from Cairo gradually empties at every stop on the way, as soldiers and tourism workers return home from their work in the capital. The landscape changes to refineries and oil platforms at sea as the bus enters the Sinai, and the journey is interrupted by multiple military checkpoints, manned by young policemen.

My ultimate destination is Saint Catherine’s Monastery, a 6th-century monastery in the Sinai desert, the last Christian stronghold in a peninsula devastated by an ISIS insurgency. Long roiled by attacks targeting the significant Egyptian military presence in the area, the Sinai has become more dangerous since the local ISIS affiliate turned its attention to foreign targets last year.

The new recruits, armed with makeshift iron shields or crouching in deep trenches, rarely see anything but intercity buses like this one driving by. The Sinai is effectively a war zone. They ask where we are headed, and nod us on when we tell them our destination is Saint Catherine's.

After eight hours of driving on empty roads, we reach the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the southern tip of the peninsula. Eighty hotels have closed here in the last few months, and the city only sees 10% of the tourists it attracted during the golden years of tourism. Since the bombing of a Russian airliner flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg last October, even Russian visitors have abandoned the Red Sea resort. Today, only Arab tourists still flock to Sharm, and "burqinis" outnumber bikinis on the city's beaches.

We drive past deep gorges and columns of sand as we continue on to the world's oldest monastery, deep in the Sinai desert. The journey becomes a pilgrimage through the cold air and silence of the night. All of a sudden, early in the morning, the pouring rain gives way to a monastery surrounded by olive and cypress trees.

Saint Catherine's Monastery panorama â€" Photo: Egghead06

Next month the monks will harvest the olives and the grapes for the mass wine, in time for Orthodox Easter. Only about 20 monks are left in this ancient monastery built on a biblical site, alone and forgotten in a dangerous region where Christians have increasingly been targeted.

A small door opens in the medieval monastery's thick walls, as the church bells ring to announce the morning mass. A Byzantine church stands beside a mosque, cloisters and several houses, all surrounded by towering walls built at the foot of Mount Sinai. The jagged granite mountain soars into the sky overhead.

The silence is broken by the odd long-haired monk passing by, then it goes quiet again after they disappear in the labyrinthine paths inside the monastery. Tourists no longer come to Saint Catherine's because they're afraid of traveling to the heart of the Sinai. It is the sign of our defeat in the face of fear, for even package tours and tacky souvenirs would be better than the abject silence that reigns over Saint Catherine. Christians have weakly succumbed to fear, abandoning the historic place and leaving it to its own fate. Today, only a few Muslim visitors curiously approach the monastery.

The monastery's beauty is striking not for its opulence but for its ancient simplicity. The basilica's cedarwood doors, carved 13 centuries ago during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, are a marvel in the middle of this barren desert. In this relic of history you feel immersed in a simpler, magnificent time, one that feels so distant yet troublingly familiar.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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