BEIRUT: Maronite Cardinal Beshara Rai Tuesday stood firm on his decision to visit to occupied Jerusalem that has stirred controversy in Lebanon, saying the trip was part of his duties as a patriarch of the Antioch and the Levant.
“The pope is coming to the Holy Land and I am the one who should welcome him ... it is part of my prerogative as a patriarch of the Antioch and the Levant to go there,” Rai told reporters at the Rafik Hariri International Airport upon his arrival from France.
“I consider myself going to my home and to my people ... Jerusalem existed and was our home long before Israel was created,” he said, adding that his duties as a church leader meant he should visit Maronite parishes every five years.
“I realize Lebanon considers Israel an enemy ... which is why I asked not to meet with [Israeli] officials there,” he said.
Some Lebanese have criticized Rai’s visit to Jerusalem, saying such a trip could be seen as a bid to normalize ties with Israel which is technically in a state of war with Lebanon.
Rai, the first head of the Maronite Church to visit occupied Jerusalem, blasted media outlets that has criticized his visit, saying: “To anyone who is annoyed or embarrassed by my visit, you can be exempt from visiting Bkirki.”
“Those who write about me should respect me ... no one should tell me what my duties are,” he said, noting that the council of bishops in Bkirki had agreed to the visit.
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.