(Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Orthodox Jews gathered at the site of the Christian Last Supper near Jerusalem on Monday ahead of a visit by Pope Francis, arguing that allowing Christians to worship at the site violates their beliefs.
Pope Francis is expected to hold a mass at the Last Supper site, known as the "Upper Room" on Mount Zion, when he visits Jerusalem from May 24-26. About 200 ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered near the site on Monday to protest Francis' planned mass, arguing that allowing the Vatican to hold a Catholic mass there denigrates the Jewish religion. Jews regard the site as being the Tomb of King David, as well as the site of a 16th Century mosque.
"Under Jewish law it is a big problem … basically they are taking over the place," Rabbi Avraham Goldstein, who organized Monday's protest, told NBC News.
"When 'the crusaders' come here making the sign of the cross and all kinds of rituals, this place will become idolatrous for us, and we will not have the right to pray there anymore," another protester, Yitzhak Batzon told AFP.
Those protesting Francis' visit to the Upper Room, also called the Cenacle, will reportedly hold another demonstration a few days before the pope's visit.
This most recent challenge comes on the heels of several incidents of vandalism committed by local Israelis against Muslims and Christians. Reuters reports that 14 attacks have been carried out in the past year by far-right Israelis. The attacks often include defacing Christian sites in the country.
Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, head of the Catholic Church in Israel, recently released a statement, saying such hateful crimes sour a peaceful atmosphere ahead of Pope Francis' visit.
"The unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere -- the atmosphere of co-existence and the atmosphere of collaboration, especially in these two weeks prior to the visit of Pope Francis," Twal said.
The Catholic leader added that the crimes are a "blight on the democracy that Israel ascribes to itself," speaking ahead of an annual procession honoring the Virgin Mary in the northern city of Haifa.
The Latin patriarch followed up his comments with another statement later in the week, after two Catholic churches were vandalized with anti-Christian and racist graffiti. "The bishops are very concerned about the lack of security and lack of responsiveness from the political sector, and fear an escalation of violence."