Jerusalem is a city rich in religious history and holy sites for three of the Abrahamic religions. This is one of the reasons it has been so hotly contested. In particular, one building on Mount Zion in Jerusalem epitomises these rival claims. The ground floor is a Jewish holy site that is said to house the tomb of the biblical King David. The second floor is the Cenacle, the room believed to be the site of Jesus’ Last Supper, holy to Christians. On the roof is an old minaret, marking a time when it was a Muslim place of worship.
For years, the building has been at the centre of a diplomatic struggle between Israel and the Vatican. Now, it has been indicated that an agreement has been reached. Diplomatic relations between the two states were established in 1993, and respective embassies established the following year. The Catholic Church saw the move as part of the Christian-Jewish reconciliation, an attempt to stamp out Christian anti-Semitism and improve understanding between the two faiths.
Since 1993, however, it has not been plain-sailing. The scope of this diplomatic relationship – complicated by theological as well as political concerns – has yet to be formalised. Discussions, which have stretched over more than a decade, have centred on several central issues. The first is property and taxation rights for the Church within Israel. The second is the status of the Church within Israel, a question that is complicated by the political activism of Palestinian Christian clergy. The third is the question of sovereignty over around 21 holy sites in Israel – including, crucially, the hall where Christ’s Last Supper was held.
For the last four years, negotiations have been overseen by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon. Speaking to the Jerusalem Post last week, he said that a historic agreement was nigh, and that agreements had been reached on all the key issues. “In the last four years a lot of ground has been covered, and after long, intensive and serious negotiations we have overcome most if not all the outstanding issues that have prevented signing of this agreement for so long,” he said. He added that the only reason it had not been signed was that it would be inappropriate for a caretaker government to do so.
So what does this actually mean? It is not the first time that Israeli leaders have declared that an agreement is imminent, only for it never to materialise.
For starters, reports suggest that the taxation and expropriation issues have been addressed. The Catholic Church does not currently pay taxes on its properties in Israel. Under the agreements, its religious institutions will continue to be exempted, in the same manner as synagogues and mosques are, but church-owned businesses will pay up. The fraught issue of expropriation – whereby Church property is taken over by the government – has also been worked out. A list of five sites has been drawn up – including shrines at Nazareth, Capernaum, and the Mount of the Beatitudes – where the land cannot be expropriated unless there is a public emergency. Even in this situation, the Church will need to be consulted.
However, this still leaves the critical question of the Last Supper site. The Holy See contends that the building belongs to the Church, as Christian friars bought it hundreds of years ago. Yet Israeli authorities have been reluctant to allow the Vatican any control over it, and Christian prayers are limited to just a few times a year. There is no chapel and no Christian iconography, such as crosses. Rabbis argue that if it becomes a church, Jews will be unable to visit their own holy site, the tomb of King David, under Jewish law.
According to reports in the Israeli press, the new agreement will guarantee the Pope a seat in the Cenacle, giving him a “special authority” over the second floor of the building so that religious events can be held there. Claiming an exclusive, the Israel National News website rages that “the agreement constitutes Israel’s capitulation to the Vatican’s efforts to ‘Christianize’ the holy site”.
But is this outrage justified? In fact, there has been no substantial indication that the Church has won the battle of the Cenacle. The original Jerusalem Post report says that “the two sides have essentially agreed to disagree on the matter, but not let it stand in the way of the overall accord.” The Vatican Insider also reports that the agreement “does not touch on thorny issues such as territorial questions” over holy sites.
The benefits to both sides of reaching an agreement and at least beginning the process of ending the diplomatic tussle are obvious. Ayalon described it as a “serious upgrade” of relations between Israel and the Holy See, and by extension, “between the Jewish people and one billion Catholics around the world”. Whether that agreement settles the issue of the Last Supper remains to be seen, but it seems most likely that the question of who has more right to holy sites will rumble on for some time to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.