Friday, February 15, 2013

Vatican-Israel negotiations: Cenacle is key to reaching an agreement“For us, the Cenacle remains a key issue that eeds to eb resolved before we can reach an agreement with the State of Israel.” 

Reliable sources from within the Secretariat of State have told Vatican Insider that the fate of the place, where according to ancient tradition Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, remains one of the core points in the negotiations between the Vatican and Israel. 

But the solution that was discussed in recent years may not be the definitive one.

St. Epiphanius who lived in Jerusalem and died in 403, writes that after the destruction Titus brought to the Holy City in 70 AD, one of the few buildings not to be demolished was “the small church erected in the spot where the apostles had awaited Pentecost.” 

Egeria, a pilgrim and author of the oldest travel journal kept on a visit to the holy sites, describes the liturgies that were celebrated “in the church on Mount Zion” in memory of the apparitions of the resurrected and of Pentecost. It is in that place that people would worship in memory of King David.

In 614, the Persians destroyed the Church which was then restored, only to be ruined again by the Muslims. Upon their arrival, all the crusaders found intact was the Cenacle chapel so they built a big basilica including the “upper room”. In 1333, the Franciscans restored the structure and built a small convent next to it. Since then, the superior Franciscan was given the title of “Guardian of Mount Zion”. In 1524 the Ottomans seized the Cenacle from the Franciscans and turned it into a mosque. Christians were forbidden to enter until about half a century ago. The Cenacle and convent were owned by a Muslim family.

In 1948, when the State of Israel was formed, the area was seized and became the property of the new State. Since then, the Israeli authorities have allowed pilgrims to visit, but the status quo which dictates down to the last detail the activities of the various Christian denominations, forbids liturgical celebrations being held. From 1948 onwards, the tradition of worshipping David’s tomb began: Until 1967, the Cenacle convent was one of the places closest to the Wall of the Temple, which passed through the Jordanian part of Jerusalem. So for decades, after visiting the Tomb of David, Israeli pilgrims would go up unto the convent’s terrace, which had a good view of the Wall of the Temple.

It should be recalled though, that the commemoration and worship of the Tomb of David began centuries before the State of Israel was formed. It was the crusaders and the monks that accompanied them who confirmed its existence, on the basis of a literary exegesis of a passage from the Acts of the Apostles (2, 29), in which, after Pentecost, Peter speaks of David’s tomb and says: “his tomb is still here among us.”

As these words were pronounced in the Cenacle, it was believed that the phrase “among us” meant “in this place.” But it is more likely that what Peter meant was “here in Jerusalem”. We must not forget that according to what is written in the First book of Kings (2, 10) the Jewish monarch: “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David.” That city could be on the hill which today bears the name Ofel, opposite Mount Zion, but Bethlehem - where the Jewish and Muslim traditions recall a tomb of David that was worshiped until the 14th century - is not being excluded either.

It later emerged that the solution the Vatican and Israeli delegations have been working on in recent years, involved that the Cenacle itself, the two adjacent rooms and the stairs that provide access to the site, being handed back to the Custody of the Holy Land.

The idea was that the Israeli State would retain ownership of the convent that was built by the Franciscans (making efforts not to give out spaces to new tenants instead of already existing ones) and of the Tomb of David site, which is situated below the Cenacle. The Tomb of David was recently vandalised by someone who tried to remove ceramic decorations dating back to the Ottoman era, from the dividing wall between the entry vestibule and the actual cenotaph.

But after years of negotiations, there is nothing to say this will be the final solution, although the Vatican explains that “the solution to the Cenacle problem needs to be acceptable.” 

The Holy See is optimistic about how the negotiations are going but not one will go as far as to say when they will conclude exactly.

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