JERUSALEM — The Cenacle, named for the Latin word for dinner, is testament to the layers of religious history in Jerusalem _ and the trouble that competing faiths can cause.
According to tradition, it was in the Cenacle that Jesus ate a Passover feast the night before his Crucifixion, instituting the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. But Christians aren’t the only ones who revere the site.
On the first floor is a Jewish shrine to King David, who’s said to be buried in a crypt below. The Cenacle’s stained-glass windows are filled with Arabic calligraphy, evidence that it once housed a mosque. A decommissioned minaret rises from the top floor to the sky.
When Pope Francis says Mass in the room Monday, the last day of a whirlwind tour of the Holy Land that will begin Saturday in Jordan, he’ll do it against a backdrop of recent protest rallies by observant Jews who are upset at what they fear is a Roman Catholic effort to assert control over the building. The norm has been for ritual Christian prayer to be held in the Cenacle only twice a year _ on Pentecost and on Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.
That tension has been fueled by discussions between Israel and the Vatican over allowing regular Christian prayer hours in what’s also known as the Upper Room, where Jesus is said to have intoned the words now enshrined in Christian ritual when he shared bread _ “This is my body” _ and wine _ “This is my blood” _ with his disciples on the night before his execution.
As a result, the area around the sacred building, which Jews call the Tomb of David, has become a religious minefield. Christian clergy say they face rising hostility in the neighborhood.
“I’ve been spat at. I’ve been cursed in the street,” the Rev. David Neuhaus, the Latin patriarch’s vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics, told an Israeli radio station, TLV1. “I think most Christians who walk around in traditional Christian garb have met with this kind of behavior.”
Israeli officials scoff at the notion that the Vatican is about to take control of the Cenacle. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said talk of giving the Upper Room to the Vatican was “a crazy conspiracy theory.”
“We’ve been dealing with it for years and denying it time after time,” Palmor said. “We’ve been negotiating church prayers. . . . They want access for organized religious ritual, and it has nothing to do with property rights or ownership.”
Hana Bendcowsky, the program director for the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, a group that fosters interfaith dialogue in the city, said the argument over the site was filled with irony. A Byzantine church was built on the site in the fourth century. It was destroyed later by invaders, then rebuilt by Crusaders. The church passed into the hands of the Roman Catholic Franciscans in 1332, to the Ottomans 200 years later and to Israel in 1948.
It was the Crusaders who recognized its Jewish importance, Bendcowsky said. “They recognized the Tomb of King David and built the sarcophagus there,” she said, referring to the tomb.
When Israel took control of Mount Zion, where the building is located, it maintained the limitation that the Muslim Ottomans had imposed on Christians: They can visit the Upper Room, but they can’t hold regular ritual prayer there. Some pray in the nearby Franciscan convent, a few steps away.
Franciscan Friar Alberto Joan Pari would like to see Christians have more of an opportunity to pray in the Last Supper room, where arguably the Christian Church began.
“It’s exciting. It’s very deep,” Pari said of the room. “If you think that everything started from here. . . . This is a place where you feel a lot of energy.”
While little remains of the original room, Pari said one wall contained several bricks from the first structure. This week, the room smelled of wet paint, evidence of last-minute improvements before the pope arrives. Workers hosed down the cobbled alleyways outside. Several police officers watched over the site on both floors.
To enter, Pari rang a hidden doorbell; if it were more prominent, he said, he’s sure that hostile neighbors would ring it day and night. On Maundy Thursday this year, just before Easter, Pari said, an Orthodox Jewish man threatened to kill him if he prayed in the Upper Room. He said he was careful not to wear his brown Franciscan habit during the protests. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said no reports of death threats had been filed.
Jerusalem City Council member Arieh King sees things differently. King is the chairman of the ultra-nationalist United Jerusalem party. He arrived at David’s Tomb on a motorcycle and wore a wide black biking jacket and a crocheted skullcap as he walked the grounds.
“If we have something that no one can argue about, it’s our historic connection to the land, and there is no better way to prove that than by having our kings buried here all over Jerusalem and the country,” he said.
King pointed to a smooth paved courtyard; underneath, he said, were the tombs of David and several other Israelite kings. A doorway from the courtyard led to a small synagogue, divided into men and women’s sides, where black-hatted men provided a constant rhythm of Hebrew psalms.
Should Jerusalem agree to give Christians the right to pray regularly in the Upper Room, King said, it would pose a problem to the Jewish faithful. According to Jewish law, it’s forbidden to pray in the same space as “idol worshippers,” a category that many believe includes Christians.
“Jews will not be able to pray here, and this is something no Jew can accept,” he said.
Bendcowsky said she worried about the atmosphere in the area over the last few months.
Posters that advertised a concert and demonstration this week were shrill, warning attendees that the pope was coming “to get the keys . . . and thus to pass the Tomb of David to the hands of the Christian Church.” In recent weeks, Jewish vandals have scrawled “King David for the Jews” and “Jesus is garbage” on the St. George Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. They also defaced the city’s Notre Dame center, where the pope will be staying, with graffiti reading “Death to Christians.” No suspects have been arrested, Rosenfeld said.
On Tuesday, Jerusalem police met with Catholic leaders in the Cenacle to work out security arrangements. On Thursday, Rosenfeld said police had issued restraining orders against four Israeli activists ahead of the pope’s visit to ensure calm at the site.
Pari said the pope’s Mass next week was designed to be discreet.
“We are sure that during his visit everything will be fine,” Pari said. “But after, we are a bit afraid of what will happen in the future. . . . If I have a possibility to meet personally the pope, I will ask him to please pray for us, because when he leaves Israel the situation will change.”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.