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Struggle for Rights at Cenacle Shows Issues With Jerusalem Holy Sites

Visitors walk into the Cenacle, the upper room believed to be the site of Jesus’ Last Supper, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem on 28 March. Pope Francis will celebrate Mass with the ordinaries of the Holy Land and the papal delegation in the Cenacle during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill) 

23 May 2014 – By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — The attention drawn to the Cenacle by extremist Jewish groups has put a damper on the hopes for negotiations over the site, said Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land.

“After all this commotion we have to calm down a little and to start now clarifying [our position],” Father Pizzaballa told journalists before the opening of a 20 May conference, organized by the Common Ground initiative, exploring Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. “The point is we have the right to pray without infringing upon the rights of others.”

Christians believe the Cenacle, or the Upper Room, is the site of the Last Supper. It is located on the second floor of a stone complex on the remains of a Byzantine church in the Old City’s Mount Zion. The first floor contains what many Jews and some Muslims believe to be King David’s burial place, sacred for Jews. A minaret on the top of the building attests to the structure’s former use as a mosque by Muslims, who regard David as a prophet.

The building belonged to the Franciscans centuries ago, but it was later taken away by Ottoman authorities, due to confrontations among the Christians. In 1948, it came under the control of the Israelis, and today Jews come to pray at the tomb.

Pope Francis was scheduled to celebrate Mass with his delegation and Holy Land Catholic leaders there on 26 May, but Father Pizzaballa said ongoing negotiations over the status of the Cenacle had nothing to do with the papal visit.

The rights of churches to use the Cenacle and fiscal issues are among the final topics that remain unresolved in more than 20 years of status negotiations between the Vatican and Israel. Father Pizzaballa said tentative negotiations over the site have been going on only in the past two years.

As custos of the Holy Land, Father Pizzaballa is in charge of coordinating the reception of pilgrims to the Christian sites of the Holy Land and sustaining the Christian presence there.

He said that, for the Franciscans, the main issue regarding the Cenacle is the recognition of their rights to pray there. He acknowledged that the site is also sacred to Muslims and Jews.

Though Christians may come to the site to pray and are not hindered in entering the room, official Masses are not permitted to be celebrated there. The Franciscans have asked for the right to celebrate Mass in the early hours of the morning a few times a week before the site is open to visitors.

“We don’t want to transform the Upper Room into a church, we don’t want the property, we don’t want sovereignty,” said Father Pizzaballa. “We want the right to pray there.”

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Tags: Jerusalem Holy Land Holy Land Christians