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 celebrates Mass in the room Monday, the last day of a Mideast tour that begins Saturday in Jordan, he’ll do it against a backdrop of recent protests by observant Jews who are upset at what they fear is a Roman Catholic effort to assert control over the building on Mount Zion.
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The norm has been for ritual Christian prayer to be held in the Cenacle only twice a year: Pentecost and 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 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 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 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.
Francis has said his pilgrimage is designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Athenagoras.
Their 1964 embrace — with the diminutive Paul almost dwarfed by the bearded, 6-foot, 4-inch Patriarch of Constantinople — ended 900 years of mutual excommunications and divisions between Catholic and Orthodox stemming from the Great Schism of 1054, which split Christianity.
The highlight of the trip that begins Saturday will be a prayer service led by Francis and Athenagoras’ successor, Bartholomew I, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
The service Sunday will be historic, given that the three main Christian communities that share the church — Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic — will pray together at the same time.
As for the Cenacle, Franciscan Friar Alberto Joan Pari would like to see Christians have more of an opportunity to pray in the Last Supper room.
“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.”
Jerusalem City Councilmember Arieh King sees things differently. King is the chairman of the ultranationalist United Jerusalem party.
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.
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 stay, with graffiti reading “Death to Christians.” No suspects have been arrested, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
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 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.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.