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Struggle for rights at Cenacle shows issues with Jerusalem's holy sites
Catholic News Service photo
Tourists touch a column during a visit to the Cenacle, where Christian tradition says Jesus attended The Last Supper, in Jerusalem May 20. Pope Francis will visit the Cenacle during his first trip to the region, visiting Jordan, the Palestinian territori es and Israel May 24-May 26.
Catholic News Service photo
Tourists touch a column during a visit to the Cenacle, where Christian tradition says Jesus attended The Last Supper, in Jerusalem May 20. Pope Francis will visit the Cenacle during his first trip to the region, visiting Jordan, the Palestinian territori es and Israel May 24-May 26.
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — The attention drawn to the Cenacle by extremist Jewish groups has put a damper on the hopes for negotiations over the site, said Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land.

"After all this commotion we have to calm down a little and to start now clarifying (our position)," Father Pizzaballa told journalists before the opening of a May 20 conference, organized by the Common Ground initiative, exploring Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. "The point is we have the right to pray without infringing upon the rights of others."

Christians believe the Cenacle, or the Upper Room, is the site of the Last Supper. It is located on the second floor of a stone complex on the remains of a Byzantine church in the Old City's Mount Zion. The first floor contains what many Jews and some Muslims believe to be King David's burial place, sacred for Jews. A minaret on the top of the building attests to the structure's former use as a mosque by Muslims, who regard David as a prophet.

The building belonged to the Franciscans centuries ago, but it was later taken away by Ottoman authorities, due to confrontations among the Christians. In 1948, it came under the control of the Israelis, and today Jews come to pray at the tomb.

Pope Francis was scheduled to celebrate Mass with his delegation and Holy Land Catholic leaders there May 26, but Father Pizzaballa said ongoing negotiations over the status of the Cenacle had nothing to do with the papal visit.

The rights of churches to use the Cenacle and fiscal issues are among the final topics that remain unresolved in more than 20 years of status negotiations between the Vatican and Israel. Father Pizzaballa said tentative negotiations over the site have been going on only in the past two years.

As custos of the Holy Land, Father Pizzaballa is in charge of coordinating the reception of pilgrims to the Christian sites of the Holy Land and sustaining the Christian presence there.

He said that, for the Franciscans, the main issue regarding the Cenacle is the recognition of their rights to pray there. He acknowledged that the site is also sacred to Muslims and Jews.

Though Christians may come to the site to pray and are not hindered in entering the room, official Masses are not permitted to be celebrated there. The Franciscans have asked for the right to celebrate Mass in the early hours of the morning a few times a week before the site is open to visitors.

"We don't want to transform the Upper Room into a church, we don't want the property, we don't want sovereignty," said Father Pizzaballa. "We want the right to pray there."

But Jerusalem is full of sites holy to multiple religions. If Christians are given the right to have organized services at the Cenacle, some people worry that Jews could demand similar rights to pray at the site they refer to as the Temple Mount and which the Muslims call Haram al-Sharif. For both Jews and Muslims, it is the holiest site in Jerusalem. Currently, Muslim prayers are recited at the al-Aqsa Mosque on the top of the hill, from where Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven, while Jews pray below at the Western Wall, which is a retaining wall of the platform above were once the Jewish temple stood.

Just weeks before the pope was scheduled to pray at the Cenacle, Orthodox Jewish extremists began a campaign charging that Israel was about to turn over the site to the Vatican. Jewish ultra-Orthodox newspapers proclaimed that Israel was handing over sovereignty of the structure to the Catholic Church and said the Vatican was about to move its headquarters to Mount Zion.

The Diaspora Yeshiva, which was originally founded to help young troubled men through Jewish learning, is part of the complex in which the Cenacle is located. It is said to now be home to some Hilltop Youth, often violent Israeli youths who illegally form small settlements throughout the West Bank. They have also been handing out anti-Christian pamphlets outside the building of the Cenacle.

Also on Mount Zion, not far from the complex, is the Benedictine Dormition Abbey, home to 23 monks who have become the target of increasing hate crimes ranging from spitting, verbal attacks and vandalism.

Whereas 10 years ago there was one such an incident a month, there has been a slow escalation of abuse, growing into an "explosion," said Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for the abbey. He said Hilltop Youth were responsible for the attacks and charged Jerusalem police with not responding to their complaints.

"I was spit at three times yesterday. We are suffering almost every day," he said.

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