Peres urges Israel to hand over holy sites to Vatican


A WEEK before Pope Benedict arrives on a pilgrimage, President Shimon Peres urged Israel to relinquish control of six Christian holy sites to the Vatican.

Israel army radio reported that Mr Peres urged the government to give up control of six sites including the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Coenaculum on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, which is the traditional site of the Last Supper, Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and the Church of the Multiplication on the Sea of Galilee.

Interior minister Eli Yishai opposed the idea. “Every concession like this limits the Israeli government’s ability to function as a sovereign government in the area,” he said.

Tourism minister Stas Misenzhnikov argued that the payback would be too small to warrant such a gesture. “If we were sure that this great gift to the Christian world would bring millions of Christian pilgrims here, then we would have a good reason to consider it,” the minister said, “but since we are not certain that this will happen, why should we hand out gifts?”

Israeli and Vatican officials have been arguing about ownership of key holy sites since diplomatic relations were established in 1993 and the dispute is one of the obstacles preventing the upgrading of ties. According to the army radio report the president urged compromise, saying the negotiations have dragged on long enough.

The Vatican’s representative to the Holy Land, Monsignor Antonio Franco, said yesterday a papal visit to the Holy Land is not the time to “quarrel over this or that”. The German-born pontiff arrives in Jordan on Friday and will travel to Israel next Monday for a five-day visit that combines prayer, interfaith dialogue and meetings with Israeli and Palestinian West Bank leaders.

The Israeli authorities are mounting a massive security exercise with particular focus on the last day of the trip, May 15th, the day Palestinians commemorate the Nakba – Catastrophe – marking the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948.

Police will deploy thousands of officers at Mount Precipice near Nazareth where the pope will say an outdoor Mass.

Pamphlets have been distributed in some Israeli Arab towns calling for protests because of comments made by the pope in 2006 considered as insulting to Islam. Police officials said protests would be allowed as long as they do not interfere with the papal visit.