On Sunday, May 25, Pope Francis will arrive in Israel on a Holy Land pilgrimage and his first visit to the region. The pontiff plans to visit the tomb of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl and place a wreath there in a symbolic gesture that is being interpreted in Israel as a papal apology. It was in 1904 that Herzl visited Pope Pius X at the Vatican to request the pontiff’s assistance in establishing a Jewish state in Israel. According to the Israel Hayom news service, the pope rejected the proposal.
Pope Francis’s visit is already stirring controversy for its political ramifications. The visit will start with a stop in the town where Jesus was born: Bethlehem, which is currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Some Muslim media are hailing the visit as a papal recognition of Palestine and an aid to “end the occupation”: a reference to territories disputed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Earlier this year, Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentine congress and Pope Francis’s close friend, claimed that Pope Francis intends to define himself as the "Che Guevara of the Palestinians" and support their "struggle and rights" during his visit. Also at issue are rumors that Israel plans to cede control over the complex regarded by Jews as the tomb of King David and which Christians claim is the site of Jesus’ Last Supper. Christians refer to the site as the Holy Cenacle. The word ‘cenacle’ is derived from the Latin word for supper. The Holy Cenacle is the so-called “Upper Room” which is upstairs from the tomb of the prophet and Jewish king, David. The site is located on Mount Zion.
Jews pray in the lower chamber daily, and Pope Francis is slated to celebrate a Mass in the upper chamber during his visit.
Various Israeli officials have denied the reports of any concession of the tomb compound. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office and Israel’s foreign ministry announced on May 20 that "there is no change and no expected change in the status quo, and there's no transfer of rights on prayer rooms from one religion to another." The denial came following plans to dramatically increase the number of days on which Christian services are held at the David’s Tomb Compound or Holy Cenacle from one day per year to 60. Netanyahu’s office said Israel "has no intention to grant the Vatican ownership or sovereignty over the Tomb of David or the Cenacle. These are baseless allegations."
Israeli police say rumors probably triggered vandalism by radical Jewish nationalists against Christian institutions in April 2014. Believed to represent the so-called ‘price-tag movement’, the vandals scrawled graffiti declaring "King David is for the Jews, Jesus is garbage" on a wall opposite a Jerusalem church. Days later, a Roman Catholic priest discovered the words "Death to Arabs, Christians and all those who hate Israel" spray-painted in Hebrew on a column in front of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center, which belongs to the Vatican. Israeli police have stepped up security at the Holy Places to forestall any attacks.
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said the Catholic Church does not seek ownership of the Holy Cenacle. "All the Vatican wishes is to hold two hours of [Christian] prayer every day in the early morning before visitors start to visit it." Bishop Shomali pointed out that Christians have prayed at the Cenacle for more than 1,000 years "because it is said to be the place where Jesus had the Last Supper and where he washed the feet of his 12 disciples. For Christians it is a major holy place."
In the interest of "interreligious dialogue," said Bishop Shomali, "it would be nice to have one holy place where many events are commemorated, and where people of different religions can come to pray." He emphasized that Jerusalem "is holy to three religions."
In Yisrael Hayom, an Israeli daily, an article laid out that, in the view of some Jews, Christian prayer and worship in the Cenacle above David’s Tomb is a sacrilege which is strictly forbidden by Jewish law and constitutes Christian idolatry.
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who leads the Temple Institute, told the daily Arutz Sheva that increasing the number of days allowed for Christian prayers would compromise the Jewish status of the David’s Tomb Compound and prevent Jews from being able to pray at King David's Tomb by potentially giving it the effective status of a church.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told the media that he looks forward to seeing Pope Francis, trusting that “the pope's visit will reveal the capital of Israel as a modern city open to the whole world." In a sign that the controversy will not go away, Jerusalem Councilman Aryeh King is boycotting an official welcome for the pope unless he brings with him “the treasures of the Jewish people that were stolen by his predecessors, treasures that today are located in the Vatican's basement."