BEIRUT/TEL AVIV: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai called on Christians Tuesday to hold on to their land, urging Palestinians during a Mass in the occupied territories to refrain from selling their properties.
“Stay in your lands, and we should face the challenges together,” Rai told Christians attending prayers in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem.
“Do not sell your lands, do not emigrate or you will have sold your essence. Maintain this precious inheritance no matter the sacrifice,” he told a congregation of Palestinians.
In a visit that has stirred much controversy in Lebanon, Rai thanked Palestinians for safeguarding and maintaining the Holy Land, which he said was part of the Christian heritage.
“This land concerns no one but God,” he stressed during the sermon, adding that it was the Palestinians’ right to demand an independent state with East Jerusalem as the capital, and for the Palestinian refugees to have the right to return.
The cardinal, on a weeklong visit to the Holy Land, spent the first two days in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands Israel occupied in the 1967 war, and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Abbas honored Rai with the “Star of Jerusalem,” the highest Palestinian order, in the presence of a number of Palestinian officials.
Rai said Tuesday that his words were aimed at fostering peace, justice and fraternity.
“This gathering today is an extension of the joy that has been instilled in us, and was this visit in a different place or not Pope Francis’, it would not have been so,” he added.
Rai’s visit overlapped with the pope’s Holy Land pilgrimage, which began Sunday. He accompanied the pope during his tour of biblical Bethlehem Sunday, but followed a separate program Monday when the pontiff’s itinerary included meetings with Israeli leaders.
The patriarch held Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem’s Old City. He also attended a reception at the Notre Dame Center.
The patriarch crossed the Green Line Monday, leaving occupied Palestinian territories and becoming the first Lebanese religious leader to enter the Jewish state since its creation in 1948, visiting Maronites in northern Israel, including Lebanese exiles.
Rai visited the Latrun Monastery west of occupied Jerusalem. He was flanked by clergy and a troop of scouts 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 this 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 it withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2000.
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.
But Rai has repeatedly defended his journey, saying it celebrates the roots of Christianity in the region. In a veiled response to his critics, he said his motives were misunderstood.
Lebanon bars its people from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis.
About 11,000 Maronites live in Israel.