Lebanese patriarch joins Pope Francis in Israel, stirring controversy (+video)

It is against the law for Lebanese to visit Israel, but Cardinal Beshara Rai – the first patriarch of the Lebanese Maronite church to do so – says he has a duty to meet followers.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

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    Lebanon's Christian Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, attends an interview with Reuters in Bkirki, north of Beirut, February 2012.
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When Lebanese Cardinal Beshara Rai heads to Israel tomorrow to participate in a papal visit to the Holy Land, he will become the first patriarch of the Maronite church to visit the Jewish state – a move that has stirred intense controversy in Lebanon.

Lebanon technically is in a state of war with Israel and it is against the law for Lebanese citizens to visit its neighbor or even have contact with its citizens. 

The Vatican has said that Cardinal Rai’s intention to travel to Jerusalem is a personal initiative and he is not a formal member of the papal delegation. The Maronites are the largest Christian sect in Lebanon. The cardinal says he has a duty to accompany Pope Francis in the Holy Land and that his visit is pastoral and will emphasize the Arab character of Jerusalem.

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"I told the prime minister that we are going to Jerusalem on a church- and pastoral-related visit. There is no political motive behind the visit,” he said Monday following a meeting with Lebanese premier Tammam Salam. Rai told reporters that his trip will convey the message that “Jerusalem is Arab and I have authority over it…. Jerusalem is our city, our city as Christians before anyone else… The Christians have been there for 2,000 years while Israel was created in 1948." 

But the patriarch’s critics maintain that the visit risks sending a message of normalization with Israel. Lebanon’s As Safir newspaper described the trip as “dangerous and one that crosses all red lines” and will allow the “Israeli wolf” to be “the main beneficiary." 

After a period of silence on the subject, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, sent a delegation last week to inform Cardinal Rai that his trip would have “negative consequences." 

“We hope that our position will be taken into account,” said Sayyed Ibrahim al-Amine Sayyed, the head of the Hezbollah’s political council. “We are used to discussing things directly with the patriarch, and we explained to him our opinion on the visit to the Holy Land.”

Meeting Maronite militiamen

Further inflaming the furor are Cardinal Rai's travel plans after the May 24- 26 papal visit to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israel seized from Jordan in a 1967 war. He has said he would spend another five days among Maronite communities in Galilee in Israel proper.

Once there, the cardinal is expected to meet some former Maronite members of the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-backed militia that supported Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon between 1978 and 2000. When Israeli troops withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000, some 6,000 SLA militiamen and their families fled across the border fearing reprisals at the hands of Hezbollah. An estimated 2,700 former militiamen and their families still live in Israel.

With about 10,000 Maronites in Israel today, they make up nearly seven percent of Israel’s 150,000 Christians. The community is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the patriarch.

“We hope the wall of fear, the wall of isolation, will fall and we will be more part of our community,” says John Zaknoun, who is helping coordinate the patriarch’s visit to Jish and other Maronite villages in Galilee. “He’s making a very courageous and great step toward destroying these walls.”

There has long been a perception in Lebanon that Maronites, which make up around 21 percent of Lebanon’s population of 4.3 million, are less hostile to Israel than other Lebanese.  During Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, some Maronite-dominated militias struck alliances with Israel against their Muslim and leftist enemies. The SLA's founders were Maronite residents of a border village in south Lebanon who first reached out to Israel for help in 1977 when surrounded by armed Palestinian groups.

“In what way was it necessary for him [Rai] to go to Jerusalem? What is the advantage for his Maronite community? Yes, there is a Maronite community [in Israel] and they deserve to see the patriarch, but if you weigh the pros and the cons [of Rai’s visit] I don’t see the pros are more than the cons,” says Michael Young, opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star newspaper. “To throw the community into the center of this debate [on Christian normalization with Israel] today does not strike me as a very intelligent thing to do.”

Seeking solidarity, not isolation

However, Christians in Israel say they should not be isolated from Arab coreligionists simply because they live in Israel or the West Bank.

“Our Arab brothers, be they Christians or Muslims, should not give us a strange look from outside and refuse to deal with us so as not to normalize relations with Israel,” Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem, told the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper. “This viewpoint is false because we are suffering, first as Palestinians and second as supporters of the Palestinian cause, which is a Palestinian-Arab cause. Therefore, we need someone to stand by our side and support us in our religious, political and nationalist fight here at home.”

Lebanon’s political system is based on a sectarian power-sharing formula, so its religious leaders – Christian and Muslim – are no strangers to the political arena. But Cardinal Rai has been criticized for overreaching since he assumed the role of patriarch following the retirement in 2011 of his predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir. Cardinal Sfeir declined to accompany former Pope John Paul II on trips to Israel in 2000 and to Damascus in 2001 and stayed home during Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel in 2009.

“A significant element of Sfeir’s strength was his reluctance [to meddle in politics], … this one [Rai] is joyful to get into the [political] club,” says Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington and a prominent Maronite figure.

The only other Maronite patriarch to visit Jerusalem in modern times was Cardinal Paul Meoushi, an ancestor of Mr. Karam known in Arabic as Boulos Meoushi. He traveled there in January 1964 when Pope Paul VI held a meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to reconcile the Western and Eastern churches, ending a schism of 900 years. Pope Francis has said that his three-day visit to the Holy Land is to mark the 50th  anniversary of that historic reconciliation.

At that time, Jordan ruled East Jerusalem and King Hussein of Jordan was the pope’s host, meaning Cardinal Meouchi did not enter Israeli territory. Cardinal Rai has offered Pope Francis the use of a Cadillac that King Hussein provided to Pope Paul VI for his Jerusalem visit, and was later given to the Maronite patriarchate.

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