Long-standing Vatican claims to at least five Christian holy sites in Israel are expected to be near the top of the agenda when Pope Benedict XVI visits the Holy Land next week.
Israel has long rejected the claims, but President Shimon Peres is strongly urging the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to turn the sites over to the Catholic Church in hopes of boosting Jewish-Christian relations.
The sites include:
- The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth;
- the Coenaculum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, traditional location of Jesus' Last Supper;
- Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives;
- Mount Tabor in the Lower Galilee region; and
- the Church of the Multiplication which lies along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Debate over future control of those sites is creating significant rifts in the new government, according to Army Radio.
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said that if turning over the sites would guarantee a major boost in Christian tourism, that would be one thing. But as Catholics have never been strong supporters of Israel, what Peres is asking would essentially amount to "handing out gifts."
Misezhnikov's remarks hit on a point on which most Israelis are typically unclear - Israel does indeed have vast Christian support that is worth bolstering even further, but it does not come from the ranks of the Catholic Church. Rather, Israel's strongest supporters are Evangelical Christians who belong to an array of Protestant denominations and non-denominatinoal groups.
Meanwhile, Israel this week will frantically wrap up preparations for the pope's visit. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry inaugurated a special website to help visitors navigate the Holy Land and keep tabs on the pope's activities here, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat issued a statement welcoming visiting Catholics to his city, "the heart and soul of the Jewish people."