Pope Francis visiting the Western Wall, May 26, 2014
Pope Francis visiting the Western Wall on Monday. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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More than 400 American rabbis voiced support for Pope Francis' efforts to promote interfaith dialogue as he embarked on his three-day trip to the Mideast, which ended Monday with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the Western Wall.

“We – Rabbis and Jewish leaders – warmly welcome you and your mission of peace to Israel,” said the open letter, signed by rabbis from the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. “With one voice, we are united in our commitment to interreligious dialogue, to opening more paths to increased understanding.”

The authors said the letter, published in an ad in Haaretz this week, was in part a response to the vandalism targeting Christian sites in Israel in recent months.

It also came in response to the objections a handful of rabbis had voiced to the pope’s plan to hold a Mass in the Cenacle, which Christians believe was the site of the Last Supper. The Cenacle is located in the complex known as King David’s Tomb on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.

Rabbi David Rosen, who served on the bilateral commission that negotiated the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in the early 1990s, said the controversy over the Cenacle is born of a sin committed by Israel’s government during those talks. Initially, he said, the Vatican conditioned relations on two demands: recognition of the Church’s canon-law courts in Israel and granting Church institutions special status with regard to taxation. Israel’s response was that both were complex matters requiring legislation.

The Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which was in charge of the negotiations, wanted to postpone establishing diplomatic ties until these issues were resolved.

“But Israel went behind these officials’ backs, to Pope John Paul II, and asked him to impose his will on the Secretariat of State,” Rosen said. “The pope agreed, in exchange for Israel’s promise to solve these problems within two years. To this day, those problems haven’t been solved.”

The Vatican has since made new demands, particularly for a change in the status quo on Mount Zion, said Rosen. The issue is now one of the main obstacles in negotiations over upgrading Israel-Vatican relations.