TEL AVIV: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai crossed the Green Line Monday, leaving occupied Palestine and becoming the first Lebanese religious leader to enter the Jewish state since its creation in 1948. After meeting with Palestinian Maronites and officials in the West Bank, Rai is set to visit Maronites in north Israel, including Lebanese exiles.
The cardinal is on a weeklong visit to the Holy Land. He spent the first two days in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands Israel occupied in the 1967 war, but Monday ventured into Israel for the first time.
The cardinal began his day at a monastery west of occupied Jerusalem. He was flanked by clergy and a scout troop that played musical instruments. Inside, Rai led a small group in prayers.
From there, he made his way to a Maronite parish in Jaffa, an ancient port that has been incorporated into Israel's second largest city, Tel Aviv. Police blocked off roads in front of the church to clear the path for his convoy. Inside the church, Rai blessed worshippers who reached out to touch him and take pictures of the cardinal with their phones.
Later in the week, Rai plans to meet with parishioners in northern Israel and celebrate Mass for Lebanese Christians who fought alongside Israeli troops during Israel's occupation of south Lebanon. The fighters of the South Lebanon Army and their families fled to Israel after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.
Rai's visit overlapped with a Holy Land pilgrimage Sunday and Monday by Francis. Rai accompanied the pope during his tour of biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank Sunday, but followed a separate program Monday when the pontiff's itinerary included meetings with Israeli leaders.
Rai made the trip despite opposition at home. His critics have said the pilgrimage implies normalization with Israel at a time when the two countries remain formally at war.
Rai said his journey, tied to a visit to the region by Pope Francis, celebrates the roots of Christianity in the region. In a veiled response to his critics, he said his motives were misunderstood.
"With all the difficulties that you heard about, with all the explanations that are not related to our visit, with all the understandings that have nothing to do with our thoughts, we came here for the goal of strengthening our belief," he said.
Archbishop Paul Sayah, a senior Maronite cleric, added that Rai's visit is purely religious. He said it is not linked to "the regrettable situation that exists between Lebanon and Israel."
Israel has invaded Lebanon several times, occupying part of the neighboring country's territory for 18 years until it withdrew in 2000.
Lebanon bars its citizens from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis. However, Maronite clergy are exempt from the ban to enable them to stay in touch with the faithful in the Holy Land.
About 11,000 Maronites live in Israel.