BEIRUT

Middle East

Israel trying to sow sectarian discord ahead of pope visit

  • A 19th century photograph of the site. (The Dajani Family/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Just outside of Jerusalem’s Old City lies Mount Zion, the site of King David’s Tomb and the Cenacle, where the Last Supper was said to have taken place.

Holy to all three Abrahamic religions, the complex is currently at the center of just one of the controversies surrounding Pope Francis’ trip to the Middle East at the end of May.

The pope is due to hold Mass in the Room of the Last Supper, something not normally allowed by the Israeli authorities – Catholic prayers are only held twice a year at the site, on Holy Thursday and the Pentecost. But more than that, there is talk that Israel – which occupied the site in 1948 – wants to relinquish control of it to the Vatican.

Officially, custodianship of the area lies with the Dajani family, one of the most prominent Palestinian Muslim families, who were granted control of the site in the 16th century, by then-Ottoman ruler Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Rather than an attempt to placate the Catholic Church, Israel is considering giving the Vatican control of the site in an effort to sow discord between Christians and Muslims, according to Marwan Dajani, who spoke with The Daily Star in an interview at his home in Beirut.

“We have never had any problem as far as religion is concerned. But you know, Israel is very, very angry that Christians and Muslims are unified,” Dajani said.

There have recently been a spate of so-called “price-tag” attacks, carried out by extremist Jews on both mosques and churches, and those at the latter sites have sometimes specifically referred to the pope’s visit.

That Christians and Muslims are unified in Palestine, “is hurting Israel very much. So one of the things they thought of is trying to divide, because they always divide. They thought, why don’t we give this part, about the Last Supper, to the Christians, and this will cause a problem between Muslims and Christians.”

Further than that, he said, it was also likely to create friction between Orthodox and Catholic Christians, the latter of which are in the minority in Palestine.

But if this is the state’s intention, it has also riled ultra-Orthodox Jews, hundreds of whom protested at the site earlier this week, and are set to do so again on May 22, several days before the pope is due to arrive, to demand Israel retain ownership of the tomb of King David, who is recognized as a prophet in Islam.

“As soon as they touch the ‘status quo’ of this place, bad things will happen,” Rabbi Avraham Goldstein said, accusing the Israeli government of wanting to hand the Upper Room over to the Vatican.

Israel Wednesday said it had “no intention” of giving the Vatican sovereignty over the site.

“Contrary to rumors in Israel, there is no intention to transfer to the Vatican sovereignty or ownership on the Tomb of David or the Cenacle,” Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Zion Evrony, said in a speech obtained by AFP.

Dajani’s response was blunt: “And you trust Israel?”

He sees no reason to. When it occupied the site in 1948, it destroyed the mosque there, and built a Torah school and synagogue in its place.

His 91-year-old cousin, Aisha, who was born on Mount Zion, is similarly skeptical. “They want to separate Muslims, Christians, Druze, Jews ... and they think we’re all terrorists.”

“I am still convinced that they will give it to the Vatican,” Dajani said. “They took my father’s home on the site and turned it into an elderly home for Israelis.”

Although the site is sacred to Muslims, they are denied entrance. One relative, Shukri Dajani, was barred from visiting his mother’s grave – the Dajani family tomb is on Mount Zion – sometime around 2000.

When he started loudly protesting the security officers’ stance, a rabbi came out to ask what was going on. More sympathetic to his plight, he invited him into his ancestral homeland and ordered the grave, which had become overgrown, cleaned up.

“Right now, we are fighting very, very hard to keep the status quo as it is. We don’t want to lose anymore,” than we already have, he said.

“I respect the Vatican and the pope, but the Israelis are playing dirty games, to create problems for us, problems between Muslims and Christians. In Palestine, we are not like in Lebanon – here it is divided, Muslims and Christians, and even between sects – in Palestine we don’t have this.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 17, 2014, on page 11.
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Summary

Just outside of Jerusalem's Old City lies Mount Zion, the site of King David's Tomb and the Cenacle, where the Last Supper was said to have taken place.

More than that, there is talk that Israel – which occupied the site in 1948 – wants to relinquish control of it to the Vatican.

Rather than an attempt to placate the Catholic Church, Israel is considering giving the Vatican control of the site in an effort to sow discord between Christians and Muslims, according to Marwan Dajani, who spoke with The Daily Star in an interview at his home in Beirut.

If this is the state's intention, it has also riled ultra-Orthodox Jews, hundreds of whom protested at the site earlier this week, and are set to do so again on May 22, several days before the pope is due to arrive, to demand Israel retain ownership of the tomb of King David, who is recognized as a prophet in Islam.

Israel Wednesday said it had "no intention" of giving the Vatican sovereignty over the site.


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