WCBE

Vatican, Israel Spar Over Disputed Last Supper Site

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 5, 2012 11:00 am

If there's one building in Jerusalem that represents the city's tangle of religions, this is it. The ground floor is a Jewish holy site said to house the tomb of the biblical King David. The second floor is the Cenacle, a Christian holy site, the room believed to be the site of Jesus' Last Supper. On the roof, there's an old minaret from when this place was marked a Muslim holy site.

One building, three religions, decades of property disputes. And the fight isn't over.

Shimon Gibson, an archaeologist from London who has excavated sites connected to Jesus' final week, says he believes the Last Supper — and the burial of King David — happened in other parts of the city. Still, Jews, Christians and Muslims venerate this site.

The building was destroyed and rebuilt a few times over. The original Byzantine church was replaced by the Crusaders.

"You can see pilgrims have left their names on the walls," Gibson notes.

Later it was taken over by Muslim Mamluks.

"You can see a mihrab, indicating that at one point this chapel was once a mosque," Gibson says.

Catholic Franciscan friars took custody in the 14th century; 200 years later, they were kicked out by the Ottoman sultan. After the 1967 Mideast war, Israel took control.

Israeli authorities have wanted to avoid allowing the Vatican to administer any kind of authority over a site that today isn't under the control of the Holy See. So Israel limits organized Christian prayers here to just a few times a year. There are no crosses on the wall; no chapel. Groups of pilgrims from around the world shuffle in, take snapshots and shuffle out. Sometimes stray cats wander around.

"I am a little bit disappointed, because, yes, I was expecting a place where you can go and pray," says Katharina Iacono of Germany, who sat on a bench in the corner. "It is difficult because [it's] very loud. And with cats and with some smells, it's not very easy."

The Vatican says this building belongs to the church, since friars bought it hundreds of years ago.

"The place is so essential, so much an integral part of the Christian narrative," says the Rev. David Neuhaus, a Catholic vicar in Jerusalem. "Needless to say, it's a dream that we could pray there in regular fashion like other holy places."

It's not the first time in history that Christian prayer here has been limited. In the 16th century, the Ottoman sultan prohibited Christians from the room of the Last Supper.

David's tomb is the main attraction today for devout Jews. Rabbi Avraham Goldstein, who directs a seminary at the site, says he has pleaded with Israeli politicians not to cede any control here.

"The minute they'll make it as a church, Jews, halachically, according to Jewish law, are forbidden to go in there," he says. "It's a disgrace for Israel, you know, it's like milk spilled that you can never return it back."

For two decades, Israel and the Holy See have been trying to work out disputes over church properties in Jerusalem. One of the few remaining thorns is the Last Supper room. Shmuel Ben Shmuel, an Israeli negotiator, says the talks are at a critical moment.

"We don't want to go into all the details right now when we are in the midst of negotiations," he says.

A final agreement could come as early as June.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today is Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, the day many Christians mark Jesus' Last Supper. Two thousand years later, there's a fight over the site where the Last Supper is said to have taken place. Israel controls the building, but the Vatican says it is the actual owner. Israel and the Vatican have been trying to resolve the dispute for over two decades, and as Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem, it looks like they are about to reach an agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: If there's one building in Jerusalem that represents the tangle of religions in this city, this is it. The ground floor is a Jewish holy site, said to house the tomb of the Biblical King David. The second floor is a Christian holy site, the room believed to be the site of Jesus' Last Supper. And on the roof, there's an old minaret from when this place was marked a Muslim holy site: one building, three religions, decades of property disputes. And the fight isn't over.

SHIMON GIBSON: So what we're going to do is we're going to go walk through the door here and have a look at this room of the Last Supper. So let's go in.

ESTRIN: Shimon Gibson is an archaeologist from London who has excavated sites connected to Jesus' final week. He believes the Last Supper - and the burial of King David - happened in other parts of the city. Still, Jews, Christians and Muslims venerate this site.

GIBSON: Look at the architecture. You have these ribbed vaults.

ESTRIN: The building was destroyed and rebuilt a few times over. The original Byzantine church was replaced by the Crusaders.

GIBSON: You can see pilgrims have left their names on the walls.

ESTRIN: Later, it was taken over by Muslim Mamluks.

GIBSON: Over here, you can see a mihrab, indicating that at one point, this chapel was a mosque.

Catholic Franciscan friars took custody in the 14th century. Two hundred years later, they were kicked out by the Ottoman sultan. After the 1967 Mideast war, Israel took control.

ESTRIN: Israeli authorities have wanted to avoid allowing the Vatican to administer any kind of authority over a site that today isn't under Vatican control. So Israel limits organized Christian prayers here to just a few times a year. There are no crosses on the wall. Groups of pilgrims from around the world shuffle in, take snapshots and shuffle out. Sometimes stray cats wander around.

Katharina Iacono from Germany sat on a bench in the corner.

KATHARINA IACONO: I'm a little bit disappointed because, yes, I was expecting a place where you can go and you can pray. And I think it's difficult, because it's very loud. And with cats and with some smells, it's not very easy.

ESTRIN: The Vatican says this building belongs to the church, since friars bought it hundreds of years ago. Father David Neuhaus is a Catholic vicar in Jerusalem.

DAVID NEUHAUS: The place is so essential, so much an integral part of the Christian narrative, that that's needless to say a dream that we would one day be able to pray there in regular fashion, like in the other holy places.

ESTRIN: It's not the first time in history that Christian prayer here has been limited. In the 16th century, the Ottoman sultan prohibited Christians from the room of the Last Supper.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

ESTRIN: David's tomb is the main attraction today for devout Jews like this one, praying near the large stone tomb marker. Rabbi Avraham Goldstein directs a seminary at the site. He says he's pleaded with Israeli politicians not to cede any control here.

AVRAHAM GOLDSTEIN: The minute they'll make it as a church, Jews halachically, according to Jewish law, are forbidden for them to go in there. I think it'd be a disgrace for Israel. You know, it's like milk that'll be spilled, and you can never return it back.

ESTRIN: For two decades, Israel and the Holy See have been trying to work out disputes over church properties in Jerusalem. One of the few remaining thorns is the Last Supper room. Shmuel Ben Shmuel, an Israeli negotiator, says the talks are at a critical moment.

SHMUEL BEN SHMUEL: We don't want to go into all the details right now when we are in the midst of negotiations.

ESTRIN: A final agreement could come as early as June.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Estrin, in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.