For Christians, it is the place where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples. For Jews, it is the tomb of King David. For Muslims, it is the site of a 16th century mosque that honors Nabi Daud (the prophet David).
Located on Mount Zion, the building housing the Room of the Last Supper (second floor), David’s Tomb (first floor) and an Ottoman-era mosque (third floor) has for some time now been a focal point of tension among the three monotheistic religions. And as Pope Francis’s visit approaches, the situation has heated up.
The site has became increasingly popular in recent years after the Antiquities Authority invested in refurbishing the building.
Dr. Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Ben Zvi Institute notes that in the years between 1948 and 1967, before the Western Wall, Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb and other places resonant with Jewish history came under Jewish control, David’s Tomb was transformed into a major site of Jewish pilgrimage. Shmuel Zanvil Kahane, director-general of the Religious Affairs Ministry at the time, encouraged Israelis to visit David’s Tomb and created Israel’s first Holocaust museum there.
After the Six Day War, David’s Tomb lost much of its popularity as the religious yearnings of Israelis were directed to other holy sites, particularly the Western Wall. But in recent years the tomb has enjoyed a resurgence of Jewish interest.
Now a number of Jewish spiritual leaders – including Chief Rabbi of Rehovot Simcha Kook and some right-wing politicians have made unsubstantiated claims that the State of Israel is on the verge of signing an agreement with the Vatican to cede control over the building. They seem to be doing this to incite against Christians, in the process tapping into a deep reservoir of Jewish animosity toward Christianity built up during centuries of Christian persecution of Jews.
Officials in the Foreign Ministry and in the Chief Rabbinate have attempted unsuccessfully to calm tempers by publicly declaring that the state has no intention of giving up control over the area and that what is being negotiated is nothing more than usage rights in the Room of the Last Supper, and that at any rate an agreement is not in the offing.
Jewish fundamentalists of different stripes – including haredim, religious Zionists and Sephardim – have been increasing their presence, holding Saturday night events known as the feast of King David. Beggars and assorted eccentrics removed from the Western Wall area by aggressive security officials and ushers have found their way to Mount Zion as well.
Meanwhile, Christian groups have also been visiting the site in increasing numbers, particularly around Easter and Pentecost. Pope Francis, like the two popes who visited Israel before him, is slated to hold a mass at the site during his visit here. Indeed, one of Francis’s most well-known customs – the ritual washing of the feet – harks back to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night of the Last Supper.
While there is no doubt that Israel will facilitate the pope’s visit at the Room of the Last Supper, we are concerned about freedom of religious expression at the site on less festive occasions.
Unfortunately, the history of Mount Zion is one of conquest.
A Byzantine-era church was built on the site which erased any traces of Jewish roots. In the 16th century Muslims conquered the area and set about erasing all Christian ties. Since 1948, when Israel took control over the area, there has been more freedom for all religions, though more needs to be done.
A few religious extremists must not be allowed to prevent the righting of a historic injustice. The chain of religious conquest and domination must stop.
Mount Zion gives Israel a unique opportunity to ensure freedom of religious expression for Christians, Muslims and Jews. But to accomplish this goal, Israeli officials must take a more a proactive role in maintaining law and order.
Police presence must be increased and clear rules for prayer times must be enforced. No religious group should be allowed to intimidate another.
As noted by Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs, “Instead of being a city of peace as reflected in its name, Jerusalem risks becoming a city of tears unless we learn to respect the religious attachments of others.”