By Raymond Ibrahim – Exclusive to Coptic Solidarity –

Local authorities decided to close down the Saint Catherine Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on January 5 and January 6, when Christmas church services are held according to the Coptic Orthodox calendar.   The general directorate of tourist police further ordered all tourist companies not to lead tours to the historic monastery.

Although the official reason for closing down the building and canceling Christmas is due to the “establishment of a plan for the development of the surrounding area” as befits a World Heritage Site, it is believed that the order came as a precautionary safeguard against Islamic terrorists targeting the site and any foreign tourists visiting it during the Christmas holiday.

Built in the mid fifth century, the Saint Catherine Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the world; additionally, it has the oldest continuously operating library in existence, with many precious manuscripts.

Although surrounded by high, thick walls, the Christian site has increasingly come under terror threats, particularly as the Sinai Peninsula is a hotbed if jihadi activity, where Coptic Christians are openly attacked and sometimes slaughtered.

The monastery was targeted last April, when unknown gunmen opened fire on an Egyptian police checkpoint guarding it, killing one policeman and wounding four.  The Islamic State later claimed the attack.

Such is the symbolic importance for the church, and the primary reason tourists have been banned from visiting the historic Christian site on Christmas Eve.