Filed Under:

Vatican, Israel Spar Over Disputed Last Supper Site

Play associated audio

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 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

'Game Of Thrones' Evolves On Women In Explosive Sixth Season

The sixth season of HBO's Game of Thrones showed a real evolution in the way the show portrays women and in the season finale, several female characters ascended to power. NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Glen Weldon from NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and Greta Johnsen, host of the Nerdette podcast, about the show.
NPR

In Quest For Happier Chickens, Perdue Shifts How Birds Live And Die

Perdue Farms, the fourth-largest poultry company in the country, says it will change its slaughter methods and also some of its poultry houses. Animal welfare groups are cheering.
NPR

Hawaii Law Places Gun Owners Into National Database

NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with Hawaii State Sen. Will Espero about gun control legislation passed in the state last week. The legislation makes Hawaii the first state to enter gun owners into an FBI database that notifies police if a resident is arrested elsewhere in the country.
WAMU 88.5

Episode 5: Why 1986 Still Matters

In 1986, a federal official issued a warning: If Metro continued to expand rapidly, the system faced a future of stark choices over maintaining existing infrastructure. Metro chose expansion. We talk to a historian about that decision. We also hear from a former Metro general manager about the following years, and from an Arlington planner about measuring how riders are responding to SafeTrack.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.