The three Korean tourists killed Monday in a suspected terrorist attack in Egypt turned out to be churchgoers on a “pilgrimage” to Christian holy sites.
The Sinai Peninsula, where the tragic incident had taken place, is considered one of the most volatile places in a country already mired in violence in the aftermath of political strife. But many Korean Christians go on trips that pass through Egypt and Israel to visit biblical landmarks.
Mount Sinai is presumed to be the place where ancient biblical leader Moses was said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. It is also common for “pilgrims” to visit an ancient church in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where tradition holds that Jesus was born.
“My mother had been saving up for years to visit the holy sites, which had been her lifelong wish,” said the daughter of a woman killed in the deadly attack. Her church, the Jincheon Central Presbyterian Church, had planned the visit to commemorate its 60th anniversary.
“For many Christians, it is a dream to walk the path of hardship that Jesus walked,” said an elder of the church surnamed Lee, saying that he never dreamed it would end in a suicide bomb attack.
Despite Lee’s optimistic views, the tragic incident clearly spells trouble for people visiting the area.
The violence on the peninsula has risen since the Egyptian military dragged former President Mohammed Morsi from power last July and started a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, with which he is affiliated.. Since then, the Islamic extremists based in Sinai have stepped up violence against authorities, making the area a powder keg in a country already neck-deep in political conflict.
Professor Seo Jeong-min, who teaches Middle East and African Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said in a radio interview that Muslim terrorists may have carried out a suicide attack on random foreign tourists. Seo added that this is why most European countries have banned or restricted travel to the Sinai Peninsula.
The Seoul government also recognized the danger of traveling in the Sinai Peninsula. In February 2012, a group of armed assailants abducted Korean tourists and released them the following day, prompting the government to raise the travel alert in the area to Level 3.
The Level 3 alert is the second-highest of the four-grade scale and urges all Korean nationals to refrain from staying in the area, but it stops short of allowing the government to actually stop tourists from going there.
Many have asked why the government did not pursue more concrete measures to prevent its citizens from entering the peninsula, despite posting an official warning about the possible hazards of traveling in the area two days before the incident.
Only after the accident, the Foreign Ministry issued a special travel alert calling for the evacuation its citizens from the region. The evacuation usually accompanies the Level 4 travel alert.
Seo, however, said it was difficult for Korea to just slap a travel ban on a region in Egypt out of fear that it may hurt the relationship between the two countries.
“In the case of Egypt, tourism is an important industry. So if a certain country bans travels to Egypt, it can become a diplomatic issue,” he said.
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)