Egypt seeks to renew interest in Sinai’s religious sites

A long way to go. Hikers walk in the Wadi Hudra area in South Sinai. (Reuters)

2017/09/10 Issue: 122 Page: 23

The Arab Weekly
Hassan Abdel Zaher

Cairo - Egypt is seeking to re¬brand Sinai as a desti¬nation for international religious tourism despite tight security conditions in parts of the peninsula because of bloody incidents between the army and a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The government is organising a conference in September to pro¬mote Sinai’s potential as an inter¬national religious tourism centre. It is hoping to capitalise on the significance the area holds for the three major monotheistic religions to attract millions of pilgrims and visitors every year.

“Sinai is a place where all reli¬gions meet,” said Gaber Taye, a senior official at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which is sponsoring the new drive. “It is strongly relevant to Islam, Christi¬anity and Judaism.”

For the past four years, Sinai, which has some of Egypt’s most renowned beaches and resorts, including Sharm el-Sheikh, has made headlines, not for its tour¬ist charm, but for the blood spilled in it. ISIS militants carried out at¬tacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of troops and policemen and turned some parts of northern Sinai into no-go areas for civilians.

ISIS has specifically targeted Christians, forcing hundreds of Christian families to flee to cities west of the Suez Canal.

“Followers of Islam, Christian¬ity and Judaism would lose a lot by not visiting religious sites in Sinai,” Taye said. “We are speak¬ing here of sites that witnessed the very beginning of the three reli¬gions.”

Among the sites the ministry will try to put on the international tourism map is Mount Sinai. Also known as Mount Horeb, it is men¬tioned many times in the Book of Exodus, the Bible and the Quran. Researchers are divided on the lo-cation of the real Mount Sinai and many say that the one in Sinai is where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments.

Near Mount Sinai is Saint Cath¬erine’s Monastery, said to be the oldest continually occupied mon¬astery in the world.

The Companions Mosque opened in Sharm el-Sheikh in March. It cost $1.6 million to build and can accommodate up to 3,000 people.

Egypt’s tourism sector was dealt a painful blow in late 2015 when ISIS operatives allegedly planted a bomb on a Russian pas¬senger plane, killing 224 people on board. This led to Russia and other countries suspending flights to Egyptian tourist destinations, depriving Egypt of millions of in¬ternational tourists and billions of dollars in lost revenues.

International tourists have start¬ed returning to Egypt in numbers in recent months, with hotel occu¬pancy in traditional destinations such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurgha¬da and Luxor experiencing an in¬creased number of visitors.

Tourism experts said, however, that Egypt has a long way to go be¬fore it returns to the pre-Russian plane bombing tourist flow rates.

“This is why we say putting Si¬nai’s religious sites on the inter¬national religious tourism map will carry a huge number of ben¬efits,” said Ahmed Shoukry, the head of the International Tourism section at the Ministry of Tour¬ism. “This can bring in a new type of tourists overlooked for years by entertainment and heritage tourism campaigns.”

Renewed international inter¬est in Sinai, especially in untradi¬tional tourist sites, could sabotage plans by the ISIS militants bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Sinai, retired police Major-Gen¬eral Farouk Megrahi said.

“The terrorists want to scare everybody out of Sinai so they can claim the land for themselves. They will hide like rats as tourism motivates development through¬out the peninsula,” he said.

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

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