JERUSALEM — The intimate Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on Monday in the Cenacle, the hall on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion venerated by Christians as the room of the Last Supper, capped a Holy Land pilgrimage meant to promote peace and tolerance.
But ancient rivalries lurk just beneath the flagstones here, and the pope’s visit has brought them to the surface. Also holy to Jews and Muslims as the traditional burial place of the biblical King David, a prophet in Islam, Mount Zion has become a crucible of competing religious claims that touch on one of the most sensitive issues in the Middle East conflict.
Control of Mount Zion has passed over the centuries from Franciscan hands to the Muslims under the Ottoman Empire and, in 1948, to Israel. Now the Vatican is seeking increased prayer rights at the Cenacle, also known as the Upper Room, which is usually devoid of any Christian symbols. Though there is free access to the hall and pilgrims often recite a psalm or sing a hymn, rituals and liturgical prayer are restricted to three times a year.
Francis made his first visit to the Holy Land, making strong symbolic gestures to promote the perspectives of the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships.
Credit Pool photo by Andrew Medichini
“Here the church was born, and was born to go forth,” the pope said in his homily. “To go forth, to set out, does not mean to forget. The church, in her going forth, preserves the memory of what took place here.”
On the lower floor, by David’s Tomb, Jews pray in a space that, for all intents and purposes, has become a synagogue. Many of the stone buildings that make up the rest of the Mount Zion compound, which sits just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, have been taken over by the Diaspora Yeshiva, a Jewish seminary.
With the pope’s visit, opposition has grown in ultra-Orthodox and nationalist religious Jewish circles to a deal between Israel and the Vatican to allow increased Christian prayer times. Many also believe that the Vatican is seeking ownership of the Cenacle, though Israeli and church officials have denied that. One rumor had it that Pope Francis was considering moving to Mount Zion.
“We are aware of the complexities,” said the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custos of the Holy Land, the Holy See’s representative who cares for pilgrims visiting holy shrines. “But we claim the right to pray in the place like everyone else.”
Father Pizzaballa said that after two years of talks with Israeli officials, one proposal is to hold formal prayers there from 6 to 8 a.m. weekdays before it is open to the public.
He was speaking at a conference here organized by Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution group that helped develop a universal code of conduct on holy sites, meant to safeguard holy places and reduce tensions around them.
But some Jewish activists are now questioning whether a change at the Cenacle might serve as a precedent and strengthen their case for the right to pray atop the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, which sits in territory that Israel seized in the 1967 war.
Any change to the status quo at the site, revered by Jews as the home of two ancient temples and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary that includes Al Aksa Mosque, is likely to enrage the Palestinians and the wider Muslim world.
The Mount Zion dispute has already led to the defacing of church property by Jewish extremists. Benedictine monks at the Dormition Abbey who share the compound complained of being spat at almost daily. A year ago, two of the abbey’s cars were destroyed and crosses were smashed at the mount’s Protestant cemetery.
For the pope’s stay here, the Israeli authorities issued restraining orders against 15 known activists to keep them away, and armed police officers were stationed outside the Cenacle. Late Saturday, the police arrested 26 Jewish nationalists protesting at the site. For the Mass, police closed the site.
For years Mount Zion was left dirty and derelict, a poor substitute for the more significant Jewish holy sites inside the Old City that became accessible to Jews after 1967.
Some tenants described an almost anarchic atmosphere. Father Nikodemus Schnabel, a spokesman for the Dormition Abbey, said the Diaspora Yeshiva had become “like an open house, a youth hostel. Every week there are new faces.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Goldstein of the Diaspora Yeshiva denied the spitting came from his students. But, he said, “The place is open. A lot of people come in.”
There are also land disputes among the various organizations within the compound.
“The problem is there has been no tenants’ meeting on the mountain for 500 or 1,000 years,” said Hagai Agmon-Snir, director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, a social action organization that moved to Mount Zion in 2006.
The Cenacle stands on what are believed to be the ruins of an ancient synagogue and Byzantine and Crusader churches. The stone structure later became a mosque. The Gothic-style hall still contains a Muslim prayer niche and stained-glass windows and wall tiles inscribed with Islamic verses.
Documents from the 14th century show the Franciscans were given custody of the Cenacle. Then, in 1523, the Ottoman sultan appointed Sheikh Ahmed al-Dajani, a local Muslim, custodian of the compound. It remained under the care of the Dajani family until Israel took over the area in 1948.
Most historians and archaeologists do not consider Mount Zion to be the actual resting place of King David, but that has not deterred the faithful. Some equate Catholic ritual with idol worship and say it will defile the premises.
“We have to be careful not to go violently against the priests. No spitting or anything,” said Ephraim Brus, an Orthodox Jew who oversees the reading of psalms on Mount Zion. “But they have lots of places,” he added, listing a number of famous churches. “What do they want with King David?”
Gilad Corinaldi, a lawyer in Israel representing the rabbis of Mount Zion, recently sent a letter to the Israeli leadership asking for clarification about any deal or understanding with the Vatican regarding a change in the status quo and prayer at the Cenacle.
An official reply reiterated denials about a transfer of ownership. It made no mention of prayer times.