BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s trip to occupied Jerusalem has divided opinion among Lebanon’s Christians, but will not have negative repercussions in the long term, analysts said Monday.
“I am against this visit in general, however, I do not understand and cannot accept this negative campaign that he is being subjected to,” said Sami Nader, professor of economics and international relations at Université Saint-Joseph.
“He is not committing a big sin. There is no single country that does not have a liaison or is [not] holding discreet talks with Israel, including Iran,” Nader explained.
While he said he personally opposed the trip on the grounds that the timing was not right, he said the visit was a way of showing support for Christians in the area.
Rai confirmed last week that he would join Pope Francis on a 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.
Pope Francis’ May 24-26 itinerary includes visits to Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Rai 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, as well as visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
But according to local daily An-Nahar, diplomatic sources said that Israel has imposed several conditions on the patriarch’s visit, including not shaking hands with any Israeli officials.
Journalist and publisher Antoine Saad noted that criticism of the trip was not voiced by everyone.
“Hezbollah did not criticize it, Amal did not criticize it, [Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid] Jumblatt did not criticize it. Why consider it a sin?” he asked.
According to Saad, the situation could be evaluated through the country’s political position, and the fact that the majority of Lebanese and Palestinian politicians have not openly admonished Rai for the trip.
But the visit has stirred controversy in local media, particularly from leading pro-Hezbollah newspaper As-Safir, which described it as a “historic mistake.”
“This will not benefit the Christians, or the Lebanese, or the Arabs, [only] Israel,” said Sanaa Khoury, an editor at As-Safir, who has been vocal in criticizing the patriarch on her Twitter account.
She told The Daily Star that Rai’s status as the head of the Maronite Church should not exempt him from Lebanese laws which prohibit citizens from traveling to Israel.
“Could it be that Rai is unaware of [how dangerous the] matter [is]?” she asked.
According to As-Safir, Palestinian opinion was divided over whether Rai should make the trip.
The patriarch himself told An-Nahar that he was surprised at the criticism, calling it “shameful.”
His predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, had apologized to Pope John Paul II, refusing to join the pontiff on his visit to Israel.
USJ’s Nader cited further differences between Sfeir and Rai. The former had also declined to visit neighboring Syria and was an outspoken critic of its role in Lebanon. Rai, on the other hand, visited Damascus last year and met with Syrian officials.
According to Nader, there is a tradition of positive neutrality when it comes to the Maronites, who did not involve themselves in any military confrontation with Israel.
Rai was following this tradition, Nader said.
However, “this does not mean at all that he is normalizing [ties].”
The most important goal of the pope and Rai’s visit was to show that Christians have a “stake in Jerusalem,” he said, and to confirm the international status of the city.
But lawyer and former Kataeb Party leader Karim Pakradouni disagreed, telling The Daily Star he opposed the visit because he believed the Jewish state would take advantage of it politically.
Even though Rai “will try not to contact any Israeli official, the Israelis are able to take advantage of [the visit],” he said.
Boulos Sayyah, Rai’s representative and a former bishop in Palestine and Jordan, told The Daily Star over the weekend that the patriarch would avoid political meetings and would 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.
“This could threaten the popularity that Rai enjoys, and it could lead to losses, and I don’t see any benefits,” Pakradouni said.
“In these matters, the patriarch has a group of bishops which serve as a protection to Bkirki.
“He should have discussed it with them,” he said.
This view was echoed by Hisham Melhem, bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, D.C. and correspondent for An-Nahar.
“I bet he did not even make serious discussions, did not consult his surroundings, but made the decision on his own,” Melhem said, describing Rai’s actions as “reckless.”
The last thing the Maronite community needed was this visit, Melhem added.
However, some in the Christian community disagreed.
One man, Fadi, said the trip should go ahead without obstruction. He also said it would have positive effects on Christians in the Middle East, and would make the Palestinian Christians feel “valued.”
But he acknowledged that from a political perspective, Rai was likely to be heavily criticized.
“Half of the population prefers the devil over Israel,” he explained.
Elementary schoolteacher Nancy Bassil also said that as long as the patriarch’s trip to occupied Jerusalem was only for religious purposes, then it should not be met with strong opposition.
“It’s just a religious trip, and that’s what’s important,” she told The Daily Star.
Concerns have also arisen concerning the potential repercussions of the visit on the security situation in Lebanon.
“There is a possibility to divert attention away from ... the Sunni-Shiite conflict and the Syria crisis,” Nader said.
For Melhem, the situation is “very brittle, with tensions between Muslims and Christians in the region and sectarianism; it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire,” he said.