BEIRUT: A Vatican spokesman says that Patriarch Beshara Rai is not a part of the pope's official delegation set to visit occupied Jerusalem later this month, but that the Maronite leader is going on his own initiative.
Rai said last week that he would join Pope Francis during a May 24-26 tour of the Holy Land, a visit that would make him the first Maronite patriarch to do so since the founding of Israel in 1948.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Rai was not part of the official delegation and was going on his own initiative.
Maronite Bishop Samir Mazloum confirmed that Rai’s visit was a “personal initiative” and said there was no decision so far to cancel the visit.
“The patriarch is the owner of the land, he is in charge of the area, he is going there to receive the pope,” Mazloum told The Daily Star. “There is no decision to back off from his decision so far."
Rai held talks Friday with Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil.
Supporters say the trip will help affirm Jerusalem's multireligious character, while critics have accused the church leader of legitimizing a state many Arabs see as a symbol of injustice, humiliation and occupation.
Addressing the furore on his return from Europe earlier this week, Rai's voice rose as he said he could not remain idle while the pope toured his region.
"My leader, the leader of the church, is coming to the land of the patriarch ... Should I stay in my house? Do I not have a clerical duty to receive the Pope?" Rai said.
"I'm going to Jerusalem to say this is our city, and Jerusalem is Arab." - with Reuters