The Lebanese news media have been in a frenzy this past week after it became known that the leader of the Maronite Church in Lebanon is set to visit Israel as part of a delegation of clergy that will welcome Pope Francis to the Holy Land later this month, Israel Radio reported on Saturday.
Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, who was elected head of the Church in 2011, stood defiant as news editorials attacked him for the planned trip. “The pope is coming to the Holy Land and I am the one who should welcome him... It is part of my prerogative as a patriarch of the Antioch and the Levant to go there,” the English-language newspaper The Daily Star quoted him as saying.
“I consider myself going to my home and to my people... Jerusalem existed and was our home long before Israel was created,” he said. “I realize Lebanon considers Israel an enemy... which is why I asked not to meet with [Israeli] officials there,” As-Safir, a Lebanese daily with a pan-Arabist bent, said the visit would constitute “a historic sin.”
Another newspaper, Al-Akhbar, warned that Rai’s visit would set a dangerous precedent that may encourage Christians in Lebanon to visit Israel.
With Israel and Lebanon technically at war, Lebanese citizens are not permitted to visit Israel, nor are Israelis allowed to cross the border to the north. The only exception is Maronite clergy, who are permitted to travel as part of their function within the Church.
Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militia that has become a key power broker in Lebanese politics, said it would seek to dissuade the patriarch from going ahead with the visit.
“The pope is going to the Holy Land and Jerusalem,” Rai told AFP. “He is going to the diocese of the patriarch, so it’s normal that the patriarch should welcome him.”
“It is a religious visit, and in no way a political one,” the patriarch said.
The Maronite Church an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Vatican.
Rai is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Daily Star noted that Rai’s predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, declined to accompany Pope John Paul II during his trip to Israel in 2000. Instead, he joined the pontiff’s delegation in Jordan.