BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai confirmed Friday he would join Pope Francis on his upcoming historic trip to occupied Jerusalem later this month, becoming the first head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church to visit Israel since it was founded in 1948.
“The pope is going to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. He is going to the diocese of the patriarch, so it’s normal that the patriarch should welcome him,” Rai told AFP by telephone from France.
He dismissed any political significance of the trip to Jerusalem. “It is not a political visit but a religious one,” Rai said.
Bishop Bulos Sayah, a representative of Rai, had earlier said that the patriarch would be part of the church delegation headed by Pope Francis during his pastoral visits to Jordan, holy sites in the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem later this month.
Rai’s trip to occupied Jerusalem would set a precedent as no head of the Maronite Church has ever visited Israel.
Political sources said a problem that might arise during the visit was that if Rai arrived with Francis on the same day, he would be compelled to shake hands with Israeli officials, including the president and prime minister, who would be on hand to welcome the pope at the airport.
Because Lebanon considers itself technically in a state of war with Israel, Lebanese citizens and officials are banned under Lebanese laws from visiting Israel.
Rai’s predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, had apologized to Pope Paul II, refusing to go along on his visit to Israel and instead joining him only on his trip to Jordan.
However, unlike Rai, who has visited Syria and met with Syrian officials, Sfeir, an outspoken critic of Syria’s role in Lebanon, had refused to go to Damascus.
The presence of Rai in the delegation headed by Francis cannot solve any problem facing Maronites who live in Israel because this is the job of the bishop who represents the Maronite Church there.
Sources in the Maronite Council said the problem of Maronites and Lebanese in Israel lay with the Lebanese state rather than with the Israeli state. “Rai’s visit will be a pastoral one within the delegation headed by the pope. The delegation’s members are committed to the pope’s program.”
Pope Francis’ May 24-26 itinerary includes visits to Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
He will celebrate Sunday Mass in the West Bank city Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born. He will meet Palestinian and Syrian refugees and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
The pope’s trip to the Holy Land comes amid rising tensions in the politically charged city of Jerusalem, which witnessed two days of violence last month at a holy site for Jews and Muslims known as a flashpoint.
Israeli police confronted Muslim protesters throwing stones near the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Jews visited the surrounding area, which Judaism reveres as the place where a biblical temple once stood.