BEIRUT: A Vatican spokesman says that Patriarch Beshara Rai is not a member of the pope’s official delegation set to visit occupied Jerusalem later this month, but that the head of the Maronite church 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 trip.
“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.”
Supporters say the trip will help affirm Jerusalem’s multireligious character and encourage Palestinian Christians to remain in their land.
But critics argue that with this visit, Rai would be recognizing Israel, a state many Arabs see illegitimate and a symbol of injustice, humiliation and occupation.
Addressing the furor, 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 upon returning to Beirut earlier this week after a trip to Europe.
“I’m going to Jerusalem to say this is our city and Jerusalem is Arab.”
Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a pro-Hezbollah Sunni preacher, defended Rai’s upcoming visit to the Holy Land, 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,” Hammoud, who is close to Hezbollah, said Friday.
Hezbollah has so far remained tight-lipped on Rai’s planned trip.
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 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 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 Gomaa to Jerusalem [in 2012] normalization as considered by many.”
He said that residents of occupied Jerusalem had welcomed Gomaa’s visit, saying that it helped them confront Zionist practices.