CAIRO — Gunmen attacked a checkpoint near the iconic St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, killing one police officer and wounding four others on Tuesday evening, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the shooting through its Amaq news agency, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist communications.
Although comparatively small by the standards of the Sinai insurgency, the assault was a relatively rare instance of violence in the southern part of the province, and it came just nine days after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 45 people in attacks on two churches — in Alexandria and Tanta — on Palm Sunday.
In a statement on its Facebook page, Egypt’s Interior Ministry said that gunmen opened fire on the checkpoint with small arms, then fled after coming under fire from Egyptian security forces.
The four wounded police officers were taken to a hospital in the nearby Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. There was no word of any militant casualties.
The attack came at a sensitive time in Egypt, just over a week before a planned visit to Cairo by Pope Francis that the Vatican has billed as an opportunity to strengthen ties between Muslim and Christian leaders.
St. Catherine’s Monastery, which was built in the sixth century and sits at the foot of Mount Sinai, is popular with tourists visiting the nearby Red Sea resorts. The monastery is part of the Egyptian Orthodox church, which has borne the brunt of a surge in Islamic State attacks targeting Christians since December.
It was not immediately clear whether the attack on St. Catherine’s was part of the Islamic State’s broader campaign of sectarian bloodshed, or of the more localized guerrilla warfare led by the Islamic State’s affiliate in North Sinai.
The last major attack in southern Sinai occurred in 2014, when a suicide bomber hit a bus in Taba, on the border with Israel, killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian bus driver. But the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, also claimed to have brought down a Russian passenger jet that crashed into the Sinai Desert shortly after takeoff from Sharm el Sheikh in October 2015, killing all 224 people on board.
The attack on St. Catherine’s, a Unesco World Heritage site, will be seen as an ominous sign for efforts to revive the area’s floundering tourist industry. Over the past year, Egyptian officials have tried to persuade Russia and Britain to resume flights to Sharm el Sheikh, which stopped in 2015.
Zack Gold, a Sinai expert at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said the attack showed that the Islamic State had penetrated deeper into southern Sinai than previously thought possible. “This helps Islamic State in its economic warfare against the state,” he said.