As the Papal visit in Jerusalem approaches, rumors have run rampant in there that the Israeli government, including Israeli President Shimon Peres, plans to use the timing of the visit to endorse a diplomatic request from the Catholic Church to hand over the site of the Last Supper on Mount Zion in Jerusalem to Vatican authorities.
When reached in Washington, Mr. Peres, now on a sensitive state visit there, said the rumors were untrue and explained the Israeli government would not agree to such a request.
This unsubstantiated rumor began in 1993, when the late Dr. Manfred Lehman, a historian with a great interest in the Vatican, told reporters at the time of the signing of the Vatican-Israel diplomatic agreement, that the Israeli
government had made secret agreements to hand over such a site in the future.
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People who were engaged in an e-mail campaign against the Papal visit started the rumor. They claimed that the Israeli government was about to make this gesture to the Vatican.
When these e-mail campaigners were asked for documentation of their claim, they said that they had none.
Based on that e-mail campaign, Israel Army radio, the Jerusalem Post and UPI still published the claim that the Israeli government had agreed to hand over Mount Zion during this Papal visit.
None of these news agencies had any substantiation for their reports from any Israeli government official.
The most prominent site in question is the room on Mount Zion said to mark the burial site of Kings Solomon and Hezekiah, known by Catholics as the Last Supper Room.
It is also located 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 a Jewish seminary for over 40 years.
An estimated 10,000 Jewish students have studied in this seminary, also known as a yeshiva, since then. For many of them, it was their first stop on their way to becoming more Jewish and their first step in their immigration to Israel.
“We were forced to give over part of the compound to the Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs,” says Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, founder and dean of the seminary, “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… Their goal, ultimately, is to conduct religious services here, with hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists coming through.
A 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.”
Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, the head of the Religions Department in the Israel Foreign Ministry, affirmed there is no chance of Israel “giving away” this property.
Israeli Attorney Aviad Visoly, who represents the Jewish seminary on Mount Zion, said that recent meetings between Israel and the Vatican had nothing to do with Mount Zion, adding the meeting is held annually and will be nothing more than a briefing on the status of the negotiations thus far.
He said Israel has politely decline the Vatican request for sovereignty on Mt. Zion, and the Vatican respected that position.
Rabbi Goldstein added, however, there is constant pressure – financial and otherwise – to allow the Church to build a passageway through the Jewish seminary to enable for thousands of Christian visitors and worshipers to gain easy access the Upper Room, where the Last Supper is said to have taken place.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org