The head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, Patriarch Beshara Rai, continued his visit in Israel and toured ruins of a Maronite village near the Lebanese border on Wednesday as an assassination plot against him was reported.
Lebanon’s security forces arrested a suspect who confessed to working with regional intelligence agencies in a plot to assassinate Rai, security sources told The Daily Star on Wednesday.
Lebanese security arrested the suspect last week, and the police report stated he was taking pictures of the patriarch’s hometown, 20 km. outside Beirut.
The church leader, who defied warnings from Hezbollah by accompanying Pope Francis on his visit to Israel, pledged on Wednesday to help dispossessed Christians in Israel.
Rai visited the site of Kafr Bir’am, a former Maronite village in the North that is now the location of Kibbutz Bar’am, on Wednesday. In antiquity the area was home to a Jewish community, and ruins of a synagogue can still be seen.
The Maronite residents of Kafr Bir’am were displaced during the War of Independence 66 years ago and they and their descendants now live in other communities in the Galilee.
Kafr Bir’am villagers, who numbered more than 800 in 1948, and their descendants have campaigned to be allowed to return to the village and rebuild there, winning an Israeli high-court ruling that has yet to be implemented by the state.
Rai said his church would lobby on their behalf through the Vatican.
“We are with you, and want to help you as much as possible,” he said in a speech to an audience of several hundred, saying he could not appeal to Israel as it is “an enemy country.”
Ghada Zoabi, founder and CEO of the Israeli Arab news website Bokra, told The Jerusalem Post Israeli Arab opinions regarding Rai’s visit are mixed, reflecting the debate taking place in Lebanon on whether the trip represents “normalization” with Israel.
Sawsan Srour, Bokra’s editor, said, to her knowledge, no Israeli political leaders had met the patriarch until Wednesday, though she said an Arab MK could have met him.
She said Rai was going to attend a meeting at a Maronite church in Capernaum and meet with Maronite veterans from the Lebanon war living in Israel.
Some Lebanese Christians allied themselves with Israel in the past. Most of the personnel in the now-defunct South Lebanon Army, which helped Israel battle Hezbollah until they withdrew in 2000, were Maronites.
Around 10,000 Maronites live in Israel, including 2,000 former SLA men and their families, who fled there during the Lebanon withdrawal.
Branded as traitors in Lebanon, former SLA soldiers and their relatives fear to return to Lebanon and want Rai to intercede on their behalf in Beirut.
“This is the first time that a senior Lebanese figure has come [to Israel], and he wants to listen to us,” Julie Abu a-Raj, a spokeswoman for the ex-SLA community, told Israel Radio.
She commended Rai for “making good on his religious duty to visit his flock and not succumbing to threats,” referring to Hebollah’s disapproval of the visit.
“We are an exiled community that was a political, historical and geographic victim of the wars of others in our country,” Abu a-Raj said. “We want to tell the Lebanese government... to stop the trials and investigations against us, the only ones who are loyal to our identities.”
Rai is set to visit Acre, Nazareth and the Maronite town of Jish on Thursday, and Haifa on Friday. He is to remain in Israel until Saturday and then return to Lebanon through Jordan.
Bishara Shlayan, an Orthodox Christian Arab from Nazareth, told the Post that he welcomes the visit of a fellow Christian.
“All Christians in the Middle East should visit Israel – the Holy Land – just as Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca.”
Shlayan, who is looking to found a Christian Arab political party that would support Israel as a Jewish state and national or army service for Arabs, said most of the country’s Christian Arabs would support such a party. Many do not do so publicly because they do not want to be seen as traitors by Muslim Israelis, he added.
Rai is the leading official in the Maronite Church. He is the first Lebanese religious leader to visit Israel.