Pope Francis I’s visit to Israel next week has awakened a number of sleeping demons. Right-wing activists, ultra-Orthodox elements, settler extremists and political activists have been running a callous campaign recently against the pope and any closer ties between Israel and the Vatican.
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Their main claim is that, during the pope’s visit, the government plans to sign an agreement that would alter the status quo at the King David’s Tomb complex on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. For a long time, the Catholic Church has asked for more access to the Room of the Last Supper – which is located in the complex above the structure of David’s Tomb – for ritual purposes.
Today, the government allows Christians to conduct ceremonies in the room – which, according to their beliefs, is where Jesus held the Last Supper and is the site of the first Christian church – on only one day a year. As part of the talks to upgrade relations between Israel and the Vatican, the issue of changing the situation was discussed to allow Christians a few more days’ prayer at the site every year. Yet, as opposed to the claims, no one ever spoke of transferring ownership, granting sovereignty or even of rights to manage the site.
The denials were not enough for the rightists. In recent days, the discussion has become so extreme that they are no longer speaking of protests against a future agreement, but of protesting the very existence of a Christian presence on Mount Zion. This discourse is fertile ground for the “price tag” events that Christians on Mount Zion have already suffered – from slashed tires and spray-painted slogans to smashed graves and even spitting attacks. The violence and hate crimes have not remained within the confines of Mount Zion. A week ago, hateful graffiti was sprayed on the Romanian Church in Jerusalem, proclaiming “Mount Zion for the Jews.” One can assume these occurrences will only increase before the pope’s arrival on Saturday.
The Christians in Jerusalem are not temporary visitors – they are part of the city, its history and its present. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes great pride in discussing the freedom of worship that exists in Jerusalem under Israeli rule. It would, therefore, be a good thing for the government to reach an agreement in which it allows true freedom of worship also for the Christians on Mount Zion. An agreement that allows prayers in the Room of the Last Supper will bring great diplomatic benefit, enabling Israel to prove with its deeds, not just words, that it allows true freedom of worship.
It will also have value for the internal discourse within Israel: Such an agreement would send a strong message to extremist elements – that there is enough room in Jerusalem and David’s Tomb for everyone. Simultaneously, the police must take the threats on Mount Zion seriously and successfully conclude investigations into the acts that have taken place there over the past year.