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Report: Israel to hand control of Jerusalem holy sites to Vatican

By Amiram Barkat

Israel is to give the Vatican control over one of the most sacred Christian sites in Jerusalem, several European newspapers have reported recently.

According to the reports, Israel will give the Holy See possession of the Coenaculum, or the Room of the Last Supper (also known as the Upper Room or the Cenacle), on Mount Zion. In exchange, Israel is to gain control of a 12th-century synagogue in Toledo, Spain, which is currently the Santa Maria la Blanca Church, says the Times of London. The synagogue became a church during the 15th-century expulsion of Jews from Spain.

President Moshe Katsav and Pope Benedict XVI are to announce the historic real estate deal during their upcoming meeting in Rome, the reports claimed.

The Foreign Ministry has dismissed the reports as "nonsense," but they have already aroused stormy reactions from religious factions warning against a change in the fragile status quo in relations among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Israeli government sources said the report recycles an old proposal that came up during more than a decade of Israel-Vatican talks on bilateral ties. They called the Catholic proposal "insulting and unreasonable," and said an Israeli investigation indicated that the Vatican does not even own the Toledo church.

The ministry said Israel rejected the proposal in 2003 and that the issue has not been raised since.

The only Israeli official who has publicly spoken about this issue is former interior minister Avraham Poraz (Shinui), who said during a visit to the Vatican last September that from Israel's perspective, the exchange could take place if the relevant parties were to agree.

In the last few days, officials in the Greek Orthodox Church have asked the Jerusalem municipality for an explanation, since it claims ownership of all of Mount Zion. The Diaspora Yeshiva, which uses several buildings on Mount Zion, asked Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday to intervene in an effort to prevent "the Tomb of David from getting into Christian hands."

In a letter to Sharon, Diaspora Yeshiva representative Shmuel Berkovitz said, "Turning the Coenaculum into an active church is a way of desecrating the holiness of the Tomb of David" and is offensive to Jews. Berkovitz, an expert on holy places, said the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who could be expected to visit the Coenaculum would make the lives of the yeshiva students intolerable.

In a letter to Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, Diaspora Yeshiva head Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein said the yeshiva would not let such an agreement pass quietly. Diaspora Yeshiva students have been involved in several violent conflicts with their neighbors, and in 1978 took control of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, which is near the Room of the Last Supper.

The two rooms are considered the fourth-holiest site in the Christian world. The Room of the Last Supper, where, as the name indicates, the Last Supper is said to have taken place, is on the second floor of the building in question. The first floor houses the Tomb of David, a holy site for Jews and Muslims, where King David is said to be buried.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.