JERUSALEM – Pope Francis has been outspoken about his affection for the Jewish people, but his visit to Israel this coming Sunday has sparked a series of delicate political and religious controversies in the Jewish state and across the region.
In recent years the Vatican has been pressuring the bilateral permanent working commission overseeing the Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel on a variety of issues, ranging from tax relief on church-owned properties to religious control over certain Christian and Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem.
Sources report that one of the Jewish sites in question is King David’s Tomb, located on Jerusalem’s Mt. Zion. One of the rooms on the upper floor of the ancient compound is reputed to be the site of the Last Supper. Jewish tradition records that Mount Zion was the site of a Jebusite fortress dubbed the “stronghold of Zion” that King David conquered and turned into his palace.
Israeli authorities have denied that Israel will relinquish any control over King David’s Tomb to the Vatican during the pontiff’s visit to Jerusalem. But Rabbi Yaakov Sevilla, an activist for King David’s Tomb who is familiar with the negotiations over the ancient site, has said a deal is in the works to transfer much control over the popular religious and tourist attraction to the Catholic Church.
Though Rabbi Sevilla acknowledged there is no formal agreement to hand over the entire site to the Vatican, he claimed Israeli authorities are on the verge of granting the Vatican “more control over the Christian elements of the site.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Yad Vashem and meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. He is also slated to meet the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein. The Palestinian Authority-appointed mufti is known for his vitriolic anti-Israel sermons and was arrested by the Israel Police last year for his direct role in inciting riots on the Temple Mount.
More than 7,000 law enforcement personnel from the Israel National Police and Israel Border Police have been assigned to protect the city during Pope Francis’s visit.
Meanwhile, Lebanese media have criticized Patriarch Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, the leader of the Maronite Church in Lebanon, for his announced intention to join Pope Francis in Israel. According to various news reports, the Maronite patriarch is expected to meet with members of the Maronite community in Israel (most of whom live in northern Israel), visit the Maronite church in Jaffa, and pray with Pope Francis at the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have prayed before his crucifixion, and on Mount Zion. He is also scheduled to make quick visits to Acre, Jish (a heavily populated Maronite Catholic town in Upper Galilee), Isfiya (a Druze village), Haifa and Nazareth before returning to Lebanon after Pope Francis’s departure from Israel.
Veiled threats against the Maronite leader from hard-line Islamic radicals in Lebanon have been posted on the Internet. Israeli security forces will also be responsible for protecting him during his visit.
Israel has one of the few Christian communities left in the Middle East that is still growing. According to 2013 figures released by Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, there are roughly 161,000 Christians living in Israel, up from 158,000 in 2012.
At the same time, Christian populations elsewhere in the region are rapidly declining. According to the Pew Research Center, just 0.6 percent of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians now live in the Middle East and North Africa. Christians make up only 4 percent of the region’s total inhabitants, drastically down from 20 percent a century ago.