BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai will avoid political meetings in his upcoming historic trip to occupied Jerusalem, on which he will accompany the pope, a representative from Bkirki said, while Hezbollah declined to comment on the visit.
Boulos Sayyah, Rai’s representative, said the patriarch would avoid political meetings and not fly through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport with the papal delegation, opting to cross into occupied Jerusalem through the Jordan crossing instead.
“The patriarch will only be taking part in the religious gatherings and not in any political official visits of the papal delegation,” Sayyah told The Daily Star Sunday.
“The patriarch is not going to naturalize relations with Israel or make any political contact. He is there to receive the pope and accompany him in his visit to the east,” he said.
Rai said Sunday that he was aware of his limits.
“I know my limits and I know that Lebanon considers Israel an enemy,” local station MTV quoted him as saying. “Some Lebanese voice meaningless criticism,” Rai added, according to MTV.
Several Hezbollah lawmakers declined to comment on the issue.
Political sources told The Daily Star that some Christian leaders were trying to convince the patriarch to cancel his visit.
Rai confirmed earlier this week that he would join the pope on his 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 visit is expected to provoke criticism from some Lebanese sects.
Rai’s visit has stirred controversy in local media, particularly from leading pro-Hezbollah newspaper As-Safir, 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.
Sayyah strongly denied that the visit had any political significance and said Rai, being the head of the largest Maronite Church in the east, had a duty to accompany the pope.
“Let us put it this way, you are about to receive a visit from someone valued in your neighborhood, do you tell him ‘I cannot be there to welcome you because I am not on good terms with my neighbor?’” he asked. “The patriarch cannot tell the pope ‘I will not be present to welcome you.’”
Lebanon is technically in a state of war with Israel, with laws in place banning citizens and officials from visiting the Jewish state.
Rai’s predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, had apologized to Pope John Paul II, refusing to go along on his visit to Israel and instead joining him only on his trip to Jordan.
Pope Francis’ May 24-26 itinerary includes visits to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The visit to occupied Jerusalem might also include meetings with Israeli political officials.
He will celebrate Sunday Mass in the West Bank city Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born. He will also meet Palestinian and Syrian refugees and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
The pope’s trip comes amid rising tensions in Jerusalem. The politically charged city saw two days of violence last month after Israeli police confronted Muslim protesters who were throwing stones near the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Jews visited the surrounding area, which they revere as the site where a biblical temple once stood.
Pope Francis met in December 2013 with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Vatican, the two men’s first and only meeting. The 25-minute talk addressed prospects for peace in the Middle East.
Father Abdo Abu Kasm, the head of the Catholic Media Center, also said Rai would visit Maronite parishes in the Holy Land and most likely agree to an invitation from President Mahmoud Abbas for an official visit.