BEIRUT: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Wednesday Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s plans to visit occupied Jerusalem later this month, saying it did not indicate normalization of ties with Israel.
A statement from Abbas’ office said the Palestinian leader telephoned Rai praising his upcoming visit, and added that it contributes to solidifying the Arabness of Jerusalem and Palestine and bolsters Muslim-Christian brotherhood.
“Abbas stressed that Rai’s visit to the Holy Land did not represent normalization of ties with Israel, as claimed by detractors and those with private agendas who reject the visit to Palestine and Jerusalem because it is under occupation, as if they are resigning to the status quo,” it added.
Rai will accompany Pope Francis on his visit to the Holy Land. Some Lebanese have criticized Rai’s planned trip, saying it could be seen as a bid to normalize ties with Israel, which is technically in a state of war with Lebanon.
But Rai stood firm on his decision Tuesday, saying the trip was part of his religious duties.
“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 Antioch and the Levant to go there,” Rai told reporters at the Rafik Hariri International Airport on arrival from France.
“I consider it going to my home and to my people. … Jerusalem existed and was our home long before Israel was created,” he said.
“I realize Lebanon considers Israel an enemy … which is why I asked not to meet with [Israeli] officials there,” he said.
The first head of the Maronite Church to visit Israel since it was founded in 1948, Rai blasted media outlets that 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.”