BEIRUT: Angered by a reporter’s questions, Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai cut short an interview with a French television station upon his arrival to Amman to begin his controversial tour of the Holy Land alongside Pope Francis.
The France 24 journalist began his interview with Rai by asking him about the repercussions of his visit, which has stirred controversy in Lebanon.
“How do you respond to criticism in Lebanon and abroad, with some describing [the trip] as a grave mistake and others described it as suicide?” the anchor asked.
Rai responded by saying that the people who welcomed the visit outnumbered those who criticized it in Lebanon and other countries.
He said the primary purpose of the visit was to welcome the pope, given that the Holy Land fell under his prerogative as patriarch of Antioch and the Levant, adding that he intended to visit Maronite parishes there.
The anchor then tried to cut Rai off to ask another question, but the prelate continued by saying that his visit had no political or military goals.
"I am coming for a religious duty. ... I have explained this before,” Rai said.
But the anchor continued to bombard Rai with questions about the disputed visit.
“Even your predecessors, including Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, did not embark on such a trip. Why is Patriarch Rai an exception? ... You have grown into a controversial figure,” the France 24 anchor said.
“I am the patriarch today, and this is my decision,” Rai said.
The anchor then asked whether such a visit could become the norm for future patriarchs, with Rai reiterating that he was in charge of the church.
“How do you respond to those who say the trip will improve Israel's reputation?” the anchor asked.
"I already answered. ... I explained this whether you understand or not,” Rai said.
“I asked for the president’s and the prime minister’s blessings on my visit to the Holy Land,” the prelate repeated several times during the 8-minute interview.
"I wish to end this topic,” Rai added.
Ignoring Rai's plea, the anchor continued to say that Lebanese citizens were forbidden from visiting Israel and would be subject to legal persecution if they do so.
"As a patriarch, does that grant you with immunity?” he asked
"I do have immunity and I took the blessings [of the president and the prime minister]. ... I respect my country and its laws. I know how to perform my duties,” he said.
The anchor then asked whether Rai would meet with former military officers who were enlisted in the pro- Israel South Lebanese Army and fled into the Jewish state after its soldiers withdrew from Lebanon.
"I will not meet any political or civilian figures," Rai repeated three times.
"I am not here to argue with you, and you too do not even understand. I have explained this before. I am a Lebanese citizen and I respect my country,” he said.
"Why are you condemning me? ... I will stop here and you don't want to understand ... I have said enough,” Rai said.
"But I want to talk about the ties between ...," the anchor said as Rai began removing his earpiece.
The visit will make Rai the first Maronite patriarch to travel to either Israel or occupied Palestine since the Jewish state was founded in 1948. His decision has come under scrutiny from various political groups given that Lebanon is technically is in a state of war with the Jewish state.
Hezbollah has urged Rai not to travel to the Holy Land, speaking of repercussions on Lebanon.
In Amman, Rai said during a mass at the Saint Charbel Church that he made the decision to visit the Holy Land to demonstrate that the city was a land for the Christians too.
"I came here to tell our people who are living here that this is our land, we were born here, Jesus Christ was born and resurrected in this land," he told believers. "I am here to salute the steadfastness of our sons in the Holy Land."
Rai said that despite the numerous difficulties, Christians never "abandoned their land or sold it and they don't need anyone to bring back their land because they are living in it."
"We have to show steadfastness and oppose all attempts to offend God's dignity," Rai said. "We say no to religious discrimination, and no to war, violence and weapons."