Vatican, Israel battle over Jerusalem Holy Site*
The Mt. Zion site where Jesus is believed to have gathered his disciples
for the Last Supper was lost to the Roman Catholic Church more than 450
years ago. No accord was reached in the latest talks.
By Edmund Sanders
December 24, 2009
Reporting from Jerusalem
The government of Israel seems to be embracing the Christmas spirit.
This week it is organizing carols and tree giveaways in Jerusalem, bus
service to Bethlehem and even a fireworks show in Nazareth with an
apparent eye on burnishing the nation's reputation for religious diversity.
But Israel won't be giving the Christmas gift near the top of the
Vatican's wish list this year: possession of a Mt. Zion holy site where
Jesus is believed to have gathered his disciples for the Last Supper.
The Roman Catholic Church has been fighting for more than 450 years to
win back control of the Crusader-era sanctuary, also known as the Holy
Cenacle, which was seized from Franciscan monks around 1551 during the
Vatican officials had hoped to made a deal with Israel this year, but
the latest round of negotiations ended this month without an agreement,
leading some to say that the impasse is souring diplomatic relations
between the two sides.
Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, who traveled to Rome
this month, said he was hopeful that a compromise could still be
reached. But though Israel might consider giving the Vatican a greater
role in operating the site, he said that turning over sovereignty was
"It is part and parcel of Jerusalem, and nobody can expect us to split
sovereignty or possession," Ayalon said, adding that high-level talks
weren't likely to resume until mid-2010.
Franciscan officials in Jerusalem, who serve as custodian for several
Christian holy sites in Israel, expressed hope that the location would
one day return to their hands.
"It's one of the most important holy places," said Father Athanasius
Macora, secretary of a Franciscan commission monitoring holy sites. He
noted that the Holy Cenacle is also revered as the site where, according
to the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit appeared before the disciples on
the first Pentecost .
Franciscans "have a special attachment," Macora said. "It was our mother
house and headquarters. We still have the deed to the property."
Macora, a Texas native, said Franciscan control of the Last Supper room
would open the site to regular Christian prayer services, Masses and
other ceremonies, which have been prohibited since the Ottoman era.
"If we get the place back, we would allow everyone to have access to
it," he said.
But as is true of many holy sites in this deeply religious city, the
Holy Cenacle, on a hill just outside the Old City walls, is the object
of conflicting historical claims. It sits atop the Tomb of David, where
some Jews believe their ancient king was buried. And during the Ottoman
period, the Holy Cenacle was used as a mosque.
Evidence of the competing claims is apparent in the stone-walled
compound, where crosses are mixed with stars of David. In the Last
Supper Room is a carved stone niche pointing toward Mecca that once was
used by Muslims during prayer.
Some experts worry that reopening the debate over control will inflame
religious tensions and lead to more clashes over holy sites in a city
that is home to hundreds.
"It's a typically complex Jerusalem problem," said Daniel Rossing, head
of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and a former
Israeli government advisor on Christian communities. "Once you start to
turn back the clock, you open a Pandora's Box and throw things into
chaos. Maintaining the status quo is usually the general policy."
Issues of sovereignty are particularly sensitive in Israel, where border
and land disputes lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last year, when Israel returned a small parcel of land once owned by the
Russian czar to the Russian government, the gesture of goodwill sparked
condemnation among Israelis who feared that the deal would lead to other
The structure on the Holy Cenacle site is believed to have been built in
the 12th and 13th centuries, although parts of the foundation are said
to date to the 2nd century. Israel seized Mt. Zion during the 1948
Arab-Israeli war in the wake of British rule.
Efforts by the Vatican to regain control began while the British were in
charge, but faltered. In 2005, then-Israeli President Moshe Katsav
reportedly drafted a proposal to swap control of the Holy Cenacle for a
synagogue-turned-church in the Spanish city of Toledo, but that plan
Some say the lack of progress is a reflection of the often-strained
relationship between Judaism and Catholicism, and between Israel and the
Vatican, which did not formally recognize the Jewish state until 1993.
"If things were friendly, such matters would be solved in months, not
years," said Sergio Itzhak Minerbi, a longtime Vatican watcher and
former Hebrew University professor.
Many Jews blame the Vatican for fueling centuries of anti-Semitism. Old
wounds were recently reopened when the Vatican moved forward with
seeking sainthood for Pope Pius XII, whom many Jews fault for failing to
speak out against the Holocaust.
For its part, the Vatican is often critical of Israel's treatment of the
approximately 150,000 Christians living in Israel, the West Bank and
Despite the high-profile Christmas tree giveaways each year, the mostly
Arab Christians complain of inequality in matters of employment, housing
and social services.
Christians also have complained in recent years about Israel's
renovations to Christian holy sites and efforts to seek taxes from
Christian-run schools and monasteries.
Minerbi said he suspects that the primary bone of contention is the
Vatican's request for tax-exemption for most religious sites. Once the
financial issue is resolved, he said, the conflict over the Last Supper
site will be settled.
In the meantime, he has offered a novel compromise: Put the site back
under control of Muslims, who ran it for four centuries before the
British took control after World War I.
The idea has provided Israel and the Vatican with something they can
finally agree on. Both are vehemently opposed.
"At this stage," said Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister, "it
would not be helpful to involve other parties."