Israel and Vatican close to signing Holy Land accord
Palestine and Jordan fear deal on East Jerusalem sites will cross “red lines”
By Lauren Gelfond Feldinger. News, Issue 248, July-August 2013
Published online: 08 July 2013
After two decades of talks, Israeli and Vatican officials are closer than they have ever been to reaching agreement over a number of disputed Holy Land sites, including the room in which Christians believe the Last Supper took place.
Historically, relations between Israel and the Vatican were strained: the Vatican did not drop the charge that the Jewish people were responsible for killing Jesus until 1965, while the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi era remain controversial. The Vatican, meanwhile, has had concerns about Israel overseeing Catholic sites. Official diplomatic relations were not established until 1994. Tensions over the status of a number of historic holy sites are ongoing, because of contested sovereignty issues or because of the competing claims of different religious groups.
After a meeting in June, Zion Evrony, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, told The Art Newspaper that a final agreement was now possible within months. “I know that some will be sceptical and say ‘we have heard this before’, but this time, I believe we are closer to the finish line and there is a good reason for optimism,” Evrony said.
The Israeli ambassador and Catholic officials in Israel would not give details, but a draft agreement outlines tax exemptions at non-commercial holy sites and gives more rights to the Vatican at key sites of Catholic interest in Jerusalem and Caesarea.
The most controversial site in the draft agreement is Jerusalem’s Cenacle compound, which is important to Christians, Jews and Muslims. According to Masha Halevi of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Christians venerate the space upstairs in the Cenacle, where the Last Supper is believed to have taken place, while Jews consider it a 13th-century holy site marking King David’s tomb. Muslims consider it the Prophet David’s burial site and it has been Waqf (Islamic Trust) property since 1551.
To add to the complexity, the site is on Mount Zion. While Israel considers this its territory, others consider it a disputed no-man’s land arising from the period 1948 to 1967, or Occupied Arab East Jerusalem. Palestine and Jordan believe the area is subject to international, not Israeli, law.
The Art Newspaper was told that Israel and the Vatican have resolved “99 per cent” of the outstanding issues, but the Vatican is worried about a Palestinian backlash, says an Israeli source involved in the negotiations.
The Vatican has long taken the position that it will not discuss sites in East Jerusalem, or the West Bank, with Israel. However, “if the agreement recognises church institutions in East Jerusalem, then there is a sense of de facto recognition [of Israeli sovereignty],” the source says. The Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land in Jerusalem declined to answer questions.
Any deal may also prove controversial in Jordan, which considers itself a guardian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. In March, Palestine signed an agreement with Jordan, re-emphasising Jordan’s responsibilities. After a Vatican-Israeli meeting in January, a Jordanian official issued a statement saying that Jordan would reject any agreement between the Holy See and Israel that led to “action” at Jerusalem’s holy sites.
A senior Palestinian official says that Jordan and Palestine are calling on the Vatican “to abide by international law and article four of the Geneva Convention, which considers East Jerusalem occupied territory, until both sides reach a final status agreement on issues of Jerusalem”.
Israeli and Vatican officials are negotiating over Waqf properties, he says. “As Palestinians, we don’t interfere in internal Israeli affairs or negotiations, but we do care when it comes to East Jerusalem [and] international law and conventions. We are positive that the Holy See is aware of the red lines… but we are worried that mistakes could be made.”
A potential Pandora’s box
The sovereignty of the Cenacle site has long been debated. The Muslim Dajani-Daoudi family of Jerusalem, which holds a document from the Ottoman Sultan in 1529 granting them guardianship over the site and rites to the land as their family burial plot, considers the site to be Waqf property, as do Palestine and Jordan. The Franciscan Catholics argue that they were the guardians of the site before the Ottoman era; Jews consider it part of Second Temple period Jerusalem.
Today, an Orthodox Jewish school is housed on the ground floor, and the Last Supper Room upstairs is a tourist site. Israel allows mass twice a year and for rare special occasions. A Palestinian source says that the new agreement would grant Franciscans two hours of daily prayer time at the Cenacle, and administrative rights, without granting ownership. He also says that rites at the Garden of Gethsemane were listed in the draft agreement.
The Israeli source says that, in addition to a Palestinian backlash, an agreement could potentially open “a Pandora’s box” by creating a precedent for other Christian communities to claim properties or benefits at the holy sites that Israel claims sovereignty over.
“I believe that the problems that remain can be resolved,” Zion Evrony said. “Once this agreement is signed, I believe it will remedy a hurdle that may have prevented the upgrading of relations between Israel and the Holy See. A future visit by the Pope [could also]… strengthen our relations.” He did not discuss Palestinian concerns.
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