Ancient monastery has few visitors amid Sinai unrest, but Bedouin neighbors protect it


Saint Catherine’s Monastery, founded by the Emperor St. Justinian the Great, sits at the foot of Mount Sinai in Sinai, Egypt. (Hussein Talal/AP)

ST. CATHERINE’S MONASTERY, Egypt — Thousands of years of tradition say the monastery built here marks the spot where Moses fell down on his knees before a burning bush and talked to God. Hidden high in the desert mountains, guarded for centuries by scholar monks and Bedouin tribesmen, this fortress sanctuary was once as remote as any place on Earth could be.

This is no longer so. The modern world arrived at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the form of paved highways and mass tourism, which once brought thousands of pilgrims a day.

But a violent insurgency and military crackdown sweeping across Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula has brought an unwelcome quiet to the south, where the Bedouin tribes make their money from tourists.

In August, the Egyptian government closed St. Catherine’s Monastery to visitors as a precaution. It was only the third closure in 50 years. While the monastery reopened its doors again after three weeks, Egyptian security forces are now everywhere, shepherding the handful of foreigners into the area in armed convoys.

The monks at the monastery, and the Bedouin who make their living as guides here, stress that the violence is taking place 300 miles to the north.

In the northern Sinai, the restive tribes have been sabotaging natural gas pipelines, and smuggling weapons, drugs and gasoline through their network of tunnels with the Gaza Strip. In the power vacuum created by Egypt’s upheaval, the Bedouin there have raised the black flag for militant jihad, and are waging a guerrilla campaign of extortion, kidnapping and targeted assassination against the powers of the state.

Militants in the north have launched near-daily attacks on Egyptian security forces. In August, gunmen ambushed trucks carrying Egyptian police recruits and executed 25 on the side of a road near a peacekeepers’ checkpoint.

But in the south, the Bedouin tell their children the story of how the Roman emperor Justinian brought their tribe of mason-warriors to the Sinai in the sixth century to build the walled monastery here, and protect the monks with their lives.

“We teach our children that the monastery gives us life,” said Suleman Gebaly, a guide and local chronicler. “This place puts food on our table.”

The descendants of these Justinian serfs continue to honor their task, and so do the monks in black frocks, with their long gray beards and ponytails, who devote their days to vespers and prayer and to their magnificent library, which preserves in the high desert air some of the oldest, most precious manuscripts in Christendom.

Industrial tourism came to the monastery with the building of paved highways in the early 1980s. Until recently, the monastery drew throngs — sometimes 350 tour buses a day, a thousand visitors or more — from the beach resorts at Taba, Dahab and Sharm el-Sheik along the Red Sea coast, a diver’s paradise.

Now one or two buses come a day. On a recent morning there was a tour group from India, and later a few stragglers in a couple of vans.

Camel drivers who bring visitors on the three-hour climb to the top of Mount Sinai say they are desperate for work.

On a recent dawn ascent, only six Colombians made the summit. At a hut along the trail, guide Sabah Darwish sat wrapped in blankets, drinking tea and smoking in the murk. “You’re the first foreigners I’ve seen in a month,” he said.

A Bedouin tribe called the Gebaliya still tend desert gardens and flocks of sheep and goats. Every man has a camel, if he can, though many families have had to sell their camels at steep discounts to traders, who take them down to the beach resorts and feed them from dumpsters, trying to hold on until the tourists come back.

Without tourism, the Bedouin said, they would pursue other paths — such as drug smuggling, or worse.

Two Americans were kidnapped in the region last year. The most recent abduction of foreigners occurred in the south in March, when an Israeli and Norwegian were snatched. Like most, they were released.

Under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, “there was an understanding that anyone from the north who came to make trouble in the south, we were allowed to kill him,” said Sheik Mousa al Gebaly, who operates a guest house and guide services in the town beside the monastery.

He remembers a time back in the 1990s when even the Israelis came in large numbers to Sinai. “I would have 50 cars with Israeli plates in my parking lot. They would hire 50 guides and 200 camels a day,” Gebaly said.

At the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel, the passport and customs halls are empty. The coast here was once a famously laid-back post-hippie haven. Now beach hotels stand as shells in the sand. Wind blows through broken glass. The decorative date palms are slumped over, brown and dead.

Once-popular seaside camps, with names like Blue Wave, Moon Camp and Nirvana are shuttered and forlorn, like beach towns in perpetual winter — no more yoga, no more snorkeling, no more bowls of hash at sunset.

At the monastery, Archbishop Damianos sat behind his desk, apologizing for his poor eyesight, fumbling for his magnifying glass and explaining that English was not his best language. He spoke five others.

“It is not so bad for a monastery to be closed for a little while. We are monks, after all,” he said, smiling at his little joke. “We’ve returned to an earlier quiet.”

The archbishop is 79 years old. He arrived here in 1961. He has spent his life among the monks and Bedouin and he is sorry the religious pilgrims have gone, but hopes they will soon return.

“When the revolutions began in Egypt, the Bedouin came to us, and said, ‘You know we have been with you all these years. This is what our ancestors were sent here to do. This is our heritage, to protect the monastery,’ ” said the bishop. “I confess I was very moved by their words. For here we are intertwined.”

The monks here tend to take the long view. The scholar Father Justin, an American from El Paso, is busy on an ambitious project to digitize more than 3,000 manuscripts and subject the ancient tomes — some written, erased and overwritten again on parchment — to multi-spectral analysis.

Father Justin stood on the roof of the library, now undergoing renovation, and pointed out the mosque below, which stood next to the basilica. He felt safe, and proud that both Muslims and Christians are at home here.

But he also mentioned the 60-foot walls that have stood for 1,400 years. “It was built as a fortress monastery, and it is easily turned into a fortress again,” Father Justin said.

But he added that he preferred to be protected by God’s good graces.

“That would be best,” he said.

Bali victims remembered 2013

Tribute to the 43 NSW victims of the Bali bombing, including Greek Australian sisters Dimitra and Elizabeth Kotronakis.

On the thirteen anniversary of the bombing that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

The Kotronakis sisters were in Bali with their newly-married sister, Maria, and her new husband Kosta, when they were killed in the attacks on popular night-spots in Kuta.

The Age reported in 2003 that the Kotronakis sisters had just come from the 300-person Greek Orthodox wedding in Blacktown, where they were Maria’s bridesmaids.

Also killed in the attack was the third bridesmaid, cousin Christina Betmalik, as well as another cousin, Louiza Zervos, who had joined the bridal party for the holiday.

'this is our justice'

TRAGIC loss … Maria Elfes (second right) on her wedding day with her bridesmaids (L-R) Christine Betmalik, sisters Elizabeth (Lizzy) & Dimmy Kotronakis. All three bridesmaids died following the 12/10/02 terrorist car bomb explosion in Kuta Beach area on.

From wedded bliss to grief … the wedding party, from left, Lizi Kotronakis, Christine Betmalik, Louiza Zervos, Maria Elfes, Dimmy Kotronakis, Kosta Elfes.

Peter Kotronakis and his wife Vicky (middle) with another family member Christine Parris at the site of the Sari Club that killed their two daughters Elizabeth (33) and Dimmy (27).

Peter Kotronakis and his wife Vicky (middle) with another family member Christine Parris at the site of the Sari Club that killed their two daughters Elizabeth (33) and Dimmy (27).
Photo: Brendan Esposito

Vicky Kotronakis is consoled by family member Christine Parris at the site of the Sari Club where her daughters died.Vicky Kotronakis is consoled by family member Christine Parris at the site of the Sari Club where her daughters died.

Gayle Airlie, Belinda Allen, Renae Anderson, Peter Basioli, Christina Betmilik, Matthew Bolwerk, Abbey Borgia, Debbie Borgia, Gerardine Buchan, Steve Buchan, Chloe Byron, Anthony Cachia, Rebecca Cartledge, Bronwyn Cartwright, Jodie Cearns, Jane Corteen, Jenny Corteen, Paul Cronin, Donna Croxford, Kristen Curnow, Francoise Dahan, Sylvia Dalais, Joshua Deegan, Andrew Dobson, Michelle Dunlop, Craig Dunn, Shane Foley, Dean Gallagher, Angela Golotta, Angela Gray, Byron Hancock, Simone Hanley, James Hardman, Billy Hardy, Nicole Harrison, Tim Hawkins, Andrea Hore, Adam Howard, Paul Hussey, Josh Iliffe, Carol Johnstone, David Kent, Dimmy Kotronakis, Elizabeth Kotronakis, Aaron Lee, Justin Lee, Stacey Lee, Danny Lewis, Scott Lysaght, Linda Makawana, Sue Maloney, Robert Marshall, David Mavroudis, Lynette McKeon, Marissa McKeon, Jenny Murphy, Amber O’Donnell, Jessica O’Donnell, Sue Ogier, Jodie O’Shea, Corey Paltridge, Charles van Renen, Brad Ridley, Ben Roberts, Bronwyn Ross, David Ross, Kathy Salvatori, Greg Sanderson, Cathy Seelin, Lee Sexton, Tom Singer, Anthony Stewart, Julie Stevenson, Jason Stokes, Behic Sumer, Nathan Swaine, Tracy Thomas, Clint Thompson, Robert Thwaites, Jonathan Wade, Vanessa Walder, Jodie Wallace, Shane Walsh-Till, Robyn Webster, Marlene Whiteley, Charmaine Whitton, Gerard Yeo, Luiza Zervos.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott to announce compensation for Australian Bali terror victims

Source: News

File:Bali memorial.jpg

File:Balinese ground zero.JPG

PM Tony Abbott has confirmed a pledge to offer compensation to Australian victims of terrorism.

MORE than a decade after the September 11 attacks in the United States and the 2002 Bali bombing, Australian victims and their families are finally set to receive compensation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott will confirm the news today when he visits the Bali bombing memorial site in Kuta, making good his pre-election pledge that he would address the issue within 100 days of taking office.

The victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme was introduced by the Gillard government in 2012, but was not made retroactive, meaning those affected by the attacks in New York in 2001 and Bali in 2002 and 2005 were unable to benefit.

But Mr Abbott, who was in Bali at the time of the 2002 bombings, will announce that compensation payments will now be made available to victims and their families for terrorist attacks dating back to September 10, 2001.

This will cover the attacks on New York and Bali as well as those in London and Egypt in 2005, Mumbai in 2008 and Jakarta in 2009.

Bali bombings

Prime Minister Tony Abbott will confirm today that victims of terror attacks like the Bali bombings will receive compensation.

Mr Abbott was in Bali when a massive bomb in a parked van was detonated outside the Sari Club in the bustling tourist area of Kuta just after 11pm on October 12, 2002.

The explosion came just 20 seconds after a suicide bomber detonated a backpack loaded with explosives inside Paddy’s Bar.

Tony Abbott

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Margie Abbott during the APEC Family photo with spouses in Bali. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

In the aftermath of the attacks, the prime minister spent many hours at Bali’s Sanglah General Hospital trying to help victims.

Mr Abbott has always said his intention to address the compensation issue was personal, and not political.

The move to address the compensation issue will finally fix the “extreme injustice” for victims and their families of recent overseas terrorism, Mr Abbott will say.

The scheme, which will cost about $30 million, will benefit around 300 individuals and families.

Sept 11 Anniversary Photo Gallery

American Airlines Flight 175 closes in on World Trade Center Tower 2 in New York, just before impact on September 11, 2001.

Payments of up to $75,000 will be made available to each eligible person, or their families. Claims can be lodged from October 21.

London bombing tributes

People look at flowers left in memory of the victims of bomb attacks at King’s Cross Station in London on July 9, 2005.

Diamond Rozakeas recently visited Kastanea – her highlight was meeting the doyenne of the dying art of professional mourning – Moirologia

The last of the mourners

The last of the mourners

Eleni Rozakeas

Even at 84, Eleni Rozakeas is an imposing woman. Now slightly stooped, her once 1.8 metre frame is still lean, her movements fluid. In the customary widows’ black garb, her dark, hooded, intense dark eyes are both steely and compassionate. Her countenance is one not to be messed with, yet despite this Eleni possesses a keen sense of humour and enjoys a good belly laugh.
In the Mani region and in fact in all of southern Greece, Eleni is one of the last of the Moirologia – professional mourners or wailers.
In a funeral tradition dating back to biblical times and depicted in the Iliad and Shakespeare, Eleni will spend up to three days beside the body wailing, reciting laments and compulsively crying. She may also pull her hair out and beat her chest. The extreme and continuous wailing is to send the deceased’s spirit or soul off on a safe journey to the other side.
Religion still plays an important role in the lives of Kastanea villagers – however, even though there are forty-three churches in the small mountainside village, they struggle to get a priest to conduct services each month. Despite this, Eleni Rozakeas is still active as a professional mourner, something she has performed for decades. Sadly, she’s at an age where many of her friends and relatives are passing on, and the small cemetery high up on the mountain overlooking the village is cramped for space.
When Eleni was born, the village’s population was over 1200. These days it numbers just 84. Nobody knows for sure how old the village is, but some say it dates back over 3000 years. It has survived numerous invasions and upheavals throughout the centuries, from Ottoman invasions to WWII and the Civil War, which had an especially devastating effect on the village and its people.
The people of Kastanea were renowned for their fighting spirit – however, after the Civil War when the times were extremely tough, many of the villagers were forced to seek a new life outside Greece. Kon and Eleni Rozakeas (the mourner’s cousin) left Kastanea in the 1950’s and eventually settled in Brunswick.
When their children Diamond, Roula and Stratis visited the village last month, they decided to use Skype to reconnect their parents with their cousins. It was the first time in twenty five years that they had seen each other. There was plenty of reminiscing and joking as well, especially from Eleni senior.
For Kon and Eleni’s children, it was a slice of history and an insight into the future. While the art of moirologia may not survive in a few years, they hope their parents’ village will survive and hopefully thrive, despite the ageing of the village and the current economic woes besetting the country.
Moirologia is the vocalization that goes with Greek ritual lament, or Klama. It’s a violent sort of mourning, and was often done by professional women mourners armed with knives. American singer Diamanda Galas with roots in Mani, Greece, performs an extreme rendition.
The word moirologia derives from the ancient Greek Tragedy, with the arch-singer and the choir following the mourning. Unfortunately very few women arch-mourners have survived, and the custom has been almost eliminated.
In ancient times, the most important part of the prothesis (the part of the funeral when the body is laid out) was the ritual lament – which is what we know today as moirologia. While singing, the persons involved would move around in a pattern resembling a dance. They would improvise lament sung by friends and relatives. Another type of lament was sung by professional mourners – similar to modern day moirologia. The hired singer would lead off the lament followed by the family. A chorus of women cried out in accompaniment.

Greek politician Akis Tsochatzopoulos gets 20 years jail for bribery in landmark verdict

Source: SMH

Greek former defence minister, Akis Tsohatzopoulos, arriving for a court trial in Athens. A Greek court found Akis Tsohatzopoulos guilty of money laundering in a six-million euro case that has become emblematic of political corruption in the debt-wracked country, on October 7, 2013.Greek former defence minister, Akis Tsohatzopoulos, arriving for a court trial in Athens earlier this year. A Greek court found him guilty of money laundering in a six-million euro case on October 7, 2013. Photo: AFP

Athens: In a landmark verdict, a former Greek defence minister and co-founder of the country’s once-mighty Socialist Party, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, has been found guilty of setting up a complex money-laundering network to cover the trail of millions of dollars in bribes he is said to have pocketed from government weapons purchases.

After a five-month trial – the highest-profile case against a Greek politician in more than two decades – judges convicted Tsochatzopoulos, 74, along with 16 other defendants, including his wife, his daughter and several business partners. All were found to have colluded with him to launder the bribe money using a network of offshore companies and property purchases.

Tsochatzopoulos was sentenced to 20 years in prison, said his lawyer, Leonidas Kotsalis, who added that his client would appeal.

Regardless of the sentencing decision on the money laundering charges, Tsochatzopoulos will not escape prison. He was sentenced in March to eight years for concealing assets from the authorities, chiefly for failing to report the purchase of a house near the Acropolis, one of several properties connected to the money laundering scheme.

Tsochatzopoulos, who has been in custody at the capital’s Korydallos Prison since his arrest in April 2012, accused the authorities of political persecution and state violence during the trial, which featured vicious exchanges between him and his former associates.

He is the most senior government official to stand trial since 1991, when former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou was acquitted on charges of accepting bribes in return for forcing state companies to prop up a troubled private bank.

In a telephone interview after the verdict, Mr Kotsalis said he had “strong reservations about the legal substantiation” of claims that his client accepted bribes.

The court heard that Tsochatzopoulos pocketed nearly $US75 million ($79.6 million) in bribes while serving as defence minister from 1996 to 2001, signing two major deals worth an estimated $US4 billion for a Russian missile defence system and German submarines.

Tsochatzopoulos had repeatedly called for members of a political and defence council that co-signed those contracts – including two former prime ministers, Costas Simitis and George A. Papandreou – to testify at his trial. But the request was rejected by the judges, who said the bribery accusations, not the arms deals, were under scrutiny.

The conviction in Athens in Monday was unusual in a country where top-ranking state officials are rarely prosecuted. But over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has intensified a crackdown on corruption among the political elite, blamed by most Greeks for a dysfunctional state system that created the country’s huge debt problem and led Greece to dependence on foreign rescue loans.

In February, Vassilis Papageorgopoulos, a former mayor of Salonika, the country’s second city, was sentenced to life in prison for embezzling at least $US24.5 million from the city.

Secret IMF documents reveal extent of concern about 2010 Greek bailout

Source: Ekathimerini

Minutes of International Monetary Fund board meetings held in May 2010 and published by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday have highlighted the concern of many country representatives that the Greek bailout was not sustainable.

One of the key criticisms expressed during meetings held before Athens agreed its first bailout with its eurozone partners and the IMF is that the design of the bailout favored European banks at the expense of Greece.

The absence of debt restructuring at the beginning of the program also met with opposition, according to the extracts from confidential documents made public by the WSJ.

“The risks of the program are immense…As it stands, the programs risks substituting private for official financing. In other and starker words, it may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions,” said Brazil’s IMF executive director Nogueira Batista at a board meeting on May 9, 2010.

According to the Wall Street Journal, IMF records show that nearly a third of the board’s members, representing more than 40 non-European countries, raised major objections to the bailout’s design at the meeting.

“The alternative of a voluntary debt restructuring should have been on the table…The European authorities would have been well advised to come up with an orderly debt restructuring process,” said Argentina’s executive director Pablo Andrés Pereira. “The bottom line is that the approved strategy would only have a marginal impact on Greece’s solvency problems…It is very likely that Greece might end up worse off after implementing this program.”

“We have considerable doubts about the feasibility of the program…We have doubts on the growth assumptions, which seem to be overly benign,” said Swiss executive director Rene Weber. “Even a small negative deviation from the baseline growth projections would make the debt level unsustainable over the longer term…Why has debt restructuring and the involvement of the private sector in the rescue package not been considered so far?”

Directors from Brazil, Russia, Canada, Australia – representing 38 additional countries – worried about the “immense risks” of the program, the WSJ reports.

“The scale of the fiscal reduction without any monetary policy offset is unprecedented…(It) is a mammoth burden that the economy could hardly bear,” said India’s representative Arvind Virmani. “Even if, arguably, the program is successfully implemented, it could trigger a deflationary spiral of falling prices, falling employment, and falling fiscal revenues that could eventually undermine the program itself.”

According to the minutes of the May 9 meeting: “Several chairs (Argentina, Brazil, India, Russia, and Switzerland) lamented that the program has a missing element: it should have included debt restructuring and Private Sector Involvement (PSI) to avoid, according to the Brazilian ED, ‘a bailout of Greece’s private sector bondholders, mainly European financial institutions.’ The Argentine ED was very critical at the program, as it seems to replicate the mistakes (i.e., unsustainable fiscal tightening) made in the run up to the Argentina’s crisis of 2001.”

However, approval from US and most European directors mean accounted for more than half of the IMF’s voting shares and paved the way for the first Greek bailout, worth 110 billion euros, to be signed.

Prominent Greek journalist on trial again over ‘Lagarde list’

Source: Reuters

A Greek investigative journalist who published the names of more than 2,000 wealthy Greeks with Swiss bank accounts appeared in court on Tuesday to stand trial again for violating privacy laws.

The unusually speedy arrest, trial and acquittal of Costas Vaxevanis last October for publishing the so-called “Lagarde List” drew international concern and captivated Greeks angry that successive governments failed to pursue those on the list while heaping austerity cuts on everyone else.

The magazine editor, who had called last year’s trial “targeted and vengeful” and an attempt to muzzle the press, was acquitted of the charges.

Although Greece has a double jeopardy law, the prosecutor successfully argued that he be tried again by a higher court, claiming to have new evidence and saying the verdict was legally flawed.

Vaxevanis was presenting his defense behind closed doors. A verdict could come as early as Tuesday and, if found guilty, he could be jailed for up to two years or face a fine.

The “Lagarde List”, with the names of 2,059 Greeks with HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland to be probed for possible tax evasion, was given to Greece by French authorities in 2010.

The saga of how the list was passed from one senior Greek official to the next and misplaced at one point without anyone apparently taking action riveted the country.

The list – named after IMF chief and then-finance minister Christine Lagarde – features dozens of prominent business figures including a handful of shipping tycoons, companies and two politicians. It also includes a painter, an actress and many listed as architects, doctors, lawyers, and housewives.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)