BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai will not meet Israeli officials when he travels to Jerusalem with Pope Francis later this month, the head of the Catholic Media Center said Saturday, urging the media to refrain from speculation.
"The visit is in the framework of welcoming Pope Francis to the patriarchal territory, and not accompanying him on a trip,” Father Abdo Abu Kasm said in a statement.
“The patriarch will not meet any Israeli official and rumors about attempts to normalize relations [with Israel] are merely part of media analyses and are inaccurate,” he added.
Rai’s visit to Jerusalem has stirred controversy in local media, particularly leading newspaper Assafir, which described the trip as a “historic mistake,” and questioned whether the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Church would meet or shake hands with Israeli officials.
Rai is the first head of the Maronite Church to visit occupied Jerusalem.
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.
Rai has also made trips to Syria, unlike Sfeir, who refused to embark on such trips given Damascus’ role in Lebanon at the time.
Abu Kasm also said that the patriarch would also visit Maronite parishes in the Holy Land and most likely agree to an invitation from President Mahmoud Abbas for an official visit.
“We hope that the media deals with such a matter in an objective way and refrain from speculation that would only skew the aim of the visit,” he said.