At least one police officer has died after armed men attacked security forces near St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s South Sinai governorate, according to the health ministry, just a week after two deadly church bombings killed 45.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, which targeted a police checkpoint about 800 metres from the entrance to the monastery, one of the world’s most important Christian sites.
The attack, which also injured four people, happened just 10 days before Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Egypt.
Egypt has for years been waging an armed campaign in the rugged and thinly populated north of Sinai, which gained pace after the military overthrew the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.
Attacks in Egypt’s South Sinai, a popular destination for tourists dotted with Red Sea resorts, are, by contrast, rare.
Security sources told Reuters news agency that security had been put on high alert at tourist facilities across South Sinai after Tuesday’s attack.
St Catherine’s Monastery, 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 percent of the country’s 92 million people, has increasingly been targeted by ISIL and other groups.
The two deadly suicide bombings of Christian churches on April 9, later claimed by ISIL, marked one of the bloodiest days for the country’s Christian minority in decades.
In February, scores of Christian families and students fled North Sinai governorate after a spate of targeted killings.
A successful assault on St Catherine’s would be the latest challenge to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has pledged to protect the religious minority.
The attack in South Sinai came as Russia was 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 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 ISIL and other groups was high.