BEIRUT: A pro-Hezbollah Sunni sheikh Friday defended Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s upcoming visit to occupied Jerusalem, saying the head of the Maronite Church did not aim at normalizing ties with Israel.
“Rai’s visit to Jerusalem with Pope Francis will never be seen as an attempt to normalize [ties with Israel] based on our knowledge of the priest, the bishop and now the patriarch,” Sheikh Maher Hammoud, who is close to Hezbollah, said Friday.
Hezbollah has so far remained tight-lipped on Rai’s planned visit to the Holy Land.
Delivering Friday’s sermon at Al-Quds Mosque in Sidon, the preacher added that Rai’s personality and culture indicated that he would "never have the intention of normalizing ties" with the Jewish state.
Hammoud said that the Vatican had always supported the causes of Arabs.
“The Vatican stood against the U.S. strike [which was expected to happen last year] on Syria and supported the rights of Arabs with regards to Palestine,” Hammoud said.
Rai said he would head to Jerusalem to welcome Pope Francis in the Holy Land later this month, in a first visit by a Maronite patriarch to Israel since it was founded in 1948.
Many in Lebanon have criticized Rai’s trip, arguing that such a move meant the patriarch sought to establish ties with Israel, which remains in a state of war with Lebanon.
But Rai has defended his trip, saying it was pastoral rather than political and aimed at encouraging Palestinian Christians to remain in their land.
Hammoud said his stance on Rai’s visit was consistent with earlier remarks the sheikh had made on similar trips.
“We did not consider the visit of Egypt’s former Mufti Ali Joumaa to Jerusalem [in 2012] normalization as considered by many,” Hammoud said.