BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai hailed Friday the steadfastness of Christians in the Holy Land, saying his visit to occupied Jerusalem was meant to reinforce the Christian identity of the city.
“I came to the Holy Land 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,” Rai told believers during a Mass at Amman’s St. Charbel Church. “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,” he continued, adding that he was praying for tense spots in the Middle East including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. “We say no to religious discrimination, and no to war, violence and weapons.”
Earlier, Rai cut short an interview with a French television station upon his arrival in Amman after the anchor bombarded him with questions about his controversial tour of the Holy Land alongside Pope Francis.
Rai’s visit is the first by the head of the Maronite Church to the Holy Land since the state of Israel was founded in 1948 and is intended to fit in Pope Francis’ three-day pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories that begins Saturday.
The France 24 journalist began his interview by asking Rai 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,” the patriarch 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.”
“I am the patriarch today, and this is my decision,” Rai said.
The anchor 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,” Rai repeated several times during the 8-minute interview. “I wish to end this topic.”
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,” Rai replied.
The anchor then asked whether Rai would meet with former military officers who were enlisted in the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army and fled into the Jewish state after its soldiers withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.
“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.”
“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.
While Rai will not attend any political meetings with Israeli officials, he said he would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Rai’s decision to visit the Holy Land has come under scrutiny from various political groups given that Lebanon is technically in a state of war with the Jewish state.
While Rai has stressed that his visit to the Holy Land had no political motives, Hezbollah and others have criticized the visit, saying such a trip could be seen as a bid to normalize ties with Israel.