Reports in the Catholic media, buttressed by information from sources in Israel who are close to a ten-year-long negotiation between Israel and the Vatican, imply that an agreement is close on the handover of a holy room on Mount Zion to the Catholic Church.
However, a Foreign Ministry official denies categorically that Israel plans to hand over any properties. At issue are properties in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and around Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
The most prominent site in question is the room said to mark the burial site of Kings Solomon and Hezekiah, known by Catholics as the Last Supper Room. It is also in the same structure that houses King David's Tomb. Said to be the oldest Catholic church in the world, the building has also served as a synagogue and a mosque in the past; Muslim inscriptions still adorn the walls.
Since 1967, however, it has been under Israeli control, part of a complex leased and run by the Diaspora Yeshiva for over 40 years. An estimated 10,000 students have studied in the Yeshiva since then; for many of them, it was their first stop on their way to Judaism and Aliyah [immigration to Israel].
The Catholic Church has long wanted control over part of the area – to turn it into an international religious center for Catholics from all over the world, Diaspora Yeshiva officials say.
"We were forced to give over part of the compound to the Ministry of Religious Affairs," says Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, founder and Dean of the Yeshiva, "which then gave it over to the Ministry of the Interior. Ever since then, the Church has been making demands and claims on the area, and has been making inroads. Their goal, ultimately, is to conduct religious services here, with hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists coming through.
"This area is very contested, by many different churches," Rabbi Goldstein (pictured below at David's Tomb) told Israel National News. "Why should the Catholic Church claim be honored more than that of others? Given such a situation, it is clear that the best solution is the status quo: Everyone is permitted to enter, but no religious services are allowed."
Negotiating Committee: Upbeat About Progress
The Bilateral Permanent Working Commission – a team of Israeli and Vatican representatives who have been negotiating fiscal and property questions since March 1999 – released an optimistic news release at the end of last week. The Commission announced "meaningful progress," "great cordiality," and a mutual commitment to reach a final agreement "as soon as possible.”
The communiqué also announced a plenary meeting for this Thursday, April 30, at the Foreign Ministry. The meeting will be chaired by the two states’ deputy foreign ministers, Danny Ayalon and Monsignor Pietro Parolin. It is suspected that an agreement will be signed then.
In addition to hints in the Catholic media, a source in a legal office close to the negotiations said that an agreement on the transfer of control of the Last Supper Room is, in fact, close. The source, who did not wish to be named, spoke to a Knesset Member's top aide.
Similarly, Dr. Daisy J. Stern, who has been closely following the matter, reports that government sources confirm that the agreement with the Vatican is ready to be signed.
Strenuous Foreign Ministry Denial
On the other hand, Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, the head of the Religions Department in the Foreign Ministry, says there is no danger of Israel giving away properties. Speaking to Attorney Aviad Visoly, who represents the Diaspora Yeshiva, Ben-Shmuel said that this week's meeting has nothing to do with Mount Zion, adding that the meeting is held annually and will be nothing more than a briefing on the status of the negotiations thus far. He said that Israel's position continues to be one of rejection of Church claims to property on Mt. Zion.
Despite the denial, Diaspora Yeshiva officials and other concerned citizens are not resting easy.
Prof. Hillel Weiss of Bar Ilan University, who met with the Yeshiva directors on Tuesday morning, said afterwards, "I cannot say if a given Foreign Ministry official is saying the truth or not. What I do know is that the Foreign Ministry has long-term policies that are anti-Jewish. We saw the renovations that are being carried out at the Mt. Zion site today at a furious pace, in time for the Pope's upcoming visit, and we know that the Vatican in general has long been working to reduce Jewish rights in Jerusalem and in the Old City. Everything must be seen from this perspective.
"The more we publicize the official denials of the Foreign Ministry that they plan to give away any lands to the Catholic Church, the better for us," Prof. Weiss summed up.
Rabbi Goldstein said plans to prepare the area of his Yeshiva for "all three religions" – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are already underway: "They have even been replacing the signs that we put up, with signs in three languages. Here," he pointed to a door leading to David's Tomb, "they took down our sign, leaving it empty, and they don't allow us to put up another one. Over here are candles lit by Jewish visitors in memory of King David – but the officials plan on stopping that as well."
The Last Supper Room has no Christian symbols. It has, however, inscriptions on the wall in Arabic, a prayer inlet built in the direction of Mecca (pictured below), and steps (pictured further below) leading to four closed-off rooms, behind which are markers of the graves of Kings Solomon and Hezekiah underneath.
"This is a Jewish area," Rabbi Goldstein emphasizes, "and they want to change the status quo and give them the right to control what goes on here. Control is often more important than actual ownership."
Church Wants Passage Through Yeshiva
The rabbi further said that there is constant pressure upon the Yeshiva – financial and otherwise – to allow the Church to build a passageway through the Yeshiva to enable thousands of Christian visitors and worshipers to more easily access the Last Supper Room each month.
Financial Incentives, No Public Debate
The Tourism Ministry has announced that it expects 15,000 to 20,000 Christians to visit Israel at the same time as the Pope, in mid-May, and a total of 1.2 million to visit during the course of 2009. The financial incentives to make the site "more Christian" are thus very great.
The former director of the Diaspora Yeshiva explained that if the Catholic Church receives control of the area, just a few hundred yards from the Temple Mount and adjacent to the Old City walls, it will turn it into "the international center for Catholics all around the world, and if the pope just gives the word, Christians will be flocking over here en masse."
"This is an enormous issue that is being pushed through without any public debate whatsoever," he said.
Rabbi Goldstein said in the past that "according to their bible, the Land is to return to the Christians and 144,000 Jews are to return to Mt. Zion. Their plan is for them to take control of the site, and then to announce that they are holding a mass reenactment of the Last Supper, with [all types of religious rituals], and to invite millions of Christians to come to Jerusalem and celebrate."
It now remains to be seen what agreement, if any, will be signed on Thursday between Israel and the Vatican.
photos by author