It is my sincere hope that there were no Eastern Orthodox Christians hurt in automobile accidents last week if they went into shock and swerved off the road after hearing the following National Public Radio mini-story on the radio. My fellow Orthodox believers: If you have hot coffee in hand as you read this post -- Put. It. Down.
The headline captures the tone: "Gunmen Attack Popular Religious Tourism Site In Sinai." What's the problem with that?
Well, we're talking about St. Catherine's Monastery, which is way, way, way more important -- in terms of history, art and significance to world Christianity -- than its role as a "tourism site."
Imagine the reaction among religious Jews if NPR had referred, after a similar attack, to the Western "wailing" Wall of the temple in Jerusalem as a "popular tourism site." I mean, it is a place visited by tourists, but that does not even hint at the site's significance to those who consider it a holy place. This is pushing things, but is Mecca a "popular tourism site"?
OK, forget religion for a moment. There are solid reasons that St. Catherine's has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are talking about what many believe is the world's oldest library.
What about the monastery's priceless, irreplaceable sacred art? Click here to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art tribute to St, Catherine's and the icons venerated there by the monks. And here is the excellent guide to the collection maintained by Princeton University. For starters, we are talking about the home of Christ of Sinai, which is the oldest known icon of the image known as Christ Pantocrator. You can make a case that this is the world's most important, the most beloved, Christian icon.
So what did NPR say in this mini-report? Here's the top of what is stored online:
There's been an attack by gunmen near a prominent religious tourism site in southern Sinai but Egyptian authorities say no tourists were involved. One security officer was killed and four others injured.
Egypt's interior ministry says a group of gunmen had been hiding in nearby mountains and opened fire on a checkpoint on the road near St. Catherine's Monastery.
The ancient monastery is built on the site where the Bible says Moses was given a sign from God in the form of a burning bush. It's one of Egypt's most important tourist sites and about 130 miles from the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.
You get the point.
Now, to be fair, it's possible that this NPR emphasis on the tourism angle -- as opposed to information about faith and world culture -- was drawn straight out of the hard-news report served up by the Associated Press. The lede does talk about the "famed" monastery, but later there is this:
The attack on the monastery, built in the 6th century and a popular site for tourists visiting the Red Sea resorts along Sinai's southern coast, comes just over a week after suicide bombers attacked two churches in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria, killing 45 people on Palm Sunday. Egypt's Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Believe it or not, that's the sum total of the story's information about the religious and cultural significance of St. Catherine's and the area surrounding it (as in the mountain at the center of that whole Moses and the burning bush thing). Other than that, the story is only interested in politics and details about recent terrorist attacks (which are important).
As for me, I would have mentioned that the leaders of the monastery also have -- passed down through the centuries -- a letter written by the Prophet Muhammad guaranteeing their safety. People argue about the authenticity, but it's a document that no one would want to see shredded or burned (other than ISIS leaders, of course).
Now, Reuters did do a story -- circulated by Religion News Service -- that kind of hints at the larger context of this attack. The Reuters team did manage to mention:
St. Catherine‘s, founded in the sixth 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.
I think it's safe to say that the Egyptian government appears to understand the importance of St. Catherine's Monastery, and not just for the tourists who manage to make it that far out into the desert. We are talking about a site that is so remote that a visitor in 1946 reported that the monks had not heard that World War II had taken place.
The bottom line: Remember how journalists realized the importance of the monasteries and sacred libraries of the Nineveh Plain weeks or months AFTER they had been utterly destroyed by ISIS?
Come on editors in the elite newsrooms of Washington, D.C., and New York City, click a few links, crack open a few art-history books or even pay a lunch-hour visit The Met. There is a lot more to St. Catherine's Monastery than tourism dollars.