Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Peres wants to hand over Christian sites in Israel to Vatican

By Jack Khoury, Haaretz Correspondent, and Haaretz Service

President Shimon Peres is urging the government to yield control of key Christian holy sites to the Vatican, a position that is believed to be opposed by Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

The Vatican's longstanding demand that Israel transfer sovereignty of key Christian sites to the control of the Holy See has created dissension among senior officials in Jerusalem.

The Interior Ministry has vowed to retain control of the sites, calling relinquishment a "sacrifice" of Israeli sovereignty.

"This matter is under the minister's authority, and he is not prepared to sacrifice Israeli sovereignty, even if it is only symbolic," Yishai's spokesman Roi Rachmanovitch said.

Peres is pressing the government to agree to the Vatican's request that Israel surrender control of six religious sites, among them the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the Coenaculum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where Jesus is said to have held The Last Supper; the Gethsemane, which sits at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; Mount Tabor; and the Church of the Multiplication, which hugs the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.

Peres is lobbying Yishai to concede the sites to the Catholic Church, Army Radio reported.

"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 think about [agreeing to the demand]," Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told Army Radio. "But since we are not certain that this will happen, why should we hand out gifts?"

The dispute between Jerusalem and the Holy See threatens to cast a pall over next week's historic visit to the Holy Land by Pope Benedict XVI. Vatican officials have made clear that they intend to reiterate their demand during the visit that Israel hand over control of the Coenaculum, Army Radio reported.

Israel gears up for papal visit

The police and the security establishment have no specific information about potential attacks targeting Pope Benedict XVI, who is scheduled to visit Nazareth on May 14, the northern district police commander said on Sunday.

Speaking at a briefing ahead of the pontiff's visit, Maj. Gen. Shimon Koren said the police will deploy thousands of personnel around the site of the planned mass on Precipice Mountain and at the Basilica of the Annunciation.

The police and the Shin Bet are providing security for the events.

Koren also said that as of Sunday, no requests had been filed to demonstrate against the Nazareth visit. The police will approve protest requests so long as they do not overshadow or disrupt the pope's visit, he said.

Senior police officers at the briefing included Amakim district head Brig. Gen. Zohar Dvir, who will be responsible for security at the basilica, and coastal district head Brig. Gen. Ronny Atias, who will be in charge of securing the mass on Precipice Mountain.

Starting May 13, police will block access to the sites and their approach roads. However, Koren said tourists and pilgrims in Nazareth will be allowed to move freely.

The services at the two sites are invitation only; invitees will be shuttled to the sites from pick-up points.

The Foreign Ministry on Sunday launched a Web site dedicated to the pope's visit.

The site - - is in eight languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, German and Hebrew) and contains textual and audio-visual information on the papal pilgrimage, Israel-Vatican relations, and Christian communities and holy sites in Israel.

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