BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai stood firm Monday on his decision to go to occupied Jerusalem, a visit that has stirred controversy in Lebanon.
“I told Prime Minister [Tammam Salam] that we are going to Jerusalem on a church- and pastoral-related visit,” Rai told reporters at the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut after his meeting with the premier.
“There is no political motive behind the visit.”
Rai announced that he would join Pope Francis during a tour of the Holy Land on May 24-26, a visit that would make him the first Maronite patriarch to travel to Israel since it was founded in 1948.
Many have criticized Rai’s visit, saying such a trip could be seen as a bid to normalize ties with Israel, with whom Lebanon is technically in a state of war. Hezbollah said Rai’s move would have negative repercussions on Lebanon.
The patriarch said that aside from his Jerusalem visit, he and Salam also discussed the presidential election crisis.
“Both of us stressed the need to elect a new president on time to avoid a vacuum,” Rai said.
Rai Monday said he had also prayed to late Pope John Paul II, who was made saint last month and whose remains have arrived to Lebanon, asking for his blessing “to elect a president before the end of this last week, so there will be a president at the level of people’s hopes.”
Lebanese leaders are scrambling to prevent the country from falling into a presidential vacuum as a fresh bid by Parliament to elect a president this week remains in doubt due to the vast rift between parties over a compromise candidate. Saturday is the last day of President Michel Sleiman in office.
Speaking at a Muslim-Christian spiritual summit at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkirki, Rai praised Pope John Paul II, who enjoyed wide support – particularly among Lebanese Christians, and said his solutions for Lebanon’s problems were reconciliation and dialogue.
According to Rai, the former pope made 171 references to Lebanon over the span of 15 years.
“We renew our covenant to maintain [the existence of] Lebanon with all its components and the continuous quest to reinforce ... coexistence between Christians and respect on the basis of protecting freedoms and human rights.”