Archbishop Moussa al-Hage, the senior Christian Maronite cleric in Israel, confirmed this week the schedule of the visit to Israel by the head of the Maronite church, Patriarch Bichara Boutros al-Rai, during the visit of Pope Francis, who will be arriving in the region on May 24.
Al-Rai’s visit is the subject of great controversy in his native Lebanon, where the seat of the Maronite Patriarch is located, and parts of the media have spoken out vehemently against his visit to Israel, which is still technically in a state of war with Lebanon.
The patriarch has however insisted that it is important for him to visit Maronite Christians in Israel and to be here to greet the pope due to his own role as the head of an important Christian denomination in the Middle East.
Al-Rai also pointed out that he will not be meeting with any Israeli officials during his visit.
On Wednesday this week at a press conference in Haifa, Archbishop al-Hage said that Patriarch al-Rai’s visit was in no way political but simply “pastoral and spiritual,” and that the visit would serve to bolster Christianity and the Eastern rites in the region.
“This visit is to assure and confirm the Christian presence and identity in the face of all the attempts to weaken the eastern Christian historical presence in the Middle East where Christianity flourished and spread,” said al-Hage.
“The Christians of the Holy Land are in need for encouragement by the Patriarchs specially on the light of the wars and persecution that happened in the Middle East throughout the previous century and the current one,” he continued.
Al-Rai’s visit will begin his visit to the region on May 24 in Jordan and Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority, to welcome Pope Francis.
He will arrive in Israel on May 26 and will meet with members of the Maronite community in Israel, as well as a prayer service in what was the Christian village of Kfar Bar’am in the Upper Galilee. The village was depopulated during the Israel War of Independence.
While in Israel, the patriarch will visit the Maronite church in Jaffa, and will also pray with Pope Francis at the Gardens of Gethsemane and at the Cenacle on Mount Zion. He will also visit several churches and parishes in Jerusalem and Beit Sahour where he will give mass.
Al-Rai will also visit Acre, Jish, Isfiya, Haifa and Nazareth before leaving on May 31.