BEIRUT: Preparations are under way in southern towns and villages to welcome Patriarch Beshara Rai on the first visit by a Maronite patriarch to the area near the border with Israel.
Rai is scheduled to begin a three-day visit to the south Saturday that will take him to the port city of Tyre, the Zahrani area, the towns of Nabatieh, Hasbaya, Marjayoun, Bint Jbeil and other villages near the border with Israel. He will also visit the command headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the south known as UNIFIL in the Lebanese border town of Naqoura.
Lebanese flags, arches of victory, pamphlets and banners welcoming Rai and affirming Muslim-Christian unity and coexistence, love and peace have been hung in public squares, churches, monasteries’ squares and along the southern coastal highway.
Rai begins the tour in Tyre where he will meet Muslim and Christian spiritual leaders before leading a Mass in the city’s cathedral. The tour will also take Rai to the village of Qana where he will pay his respects to the graves of more than 100 Lebanese civilians who were killed by Israeli artillery shelling targeting a U.N. compound during the Israeli military blitz on Lebanon in 1996.
The patriarch will also visit the Christian towns of Rmeish, Ain Ibl and Dibel where he will lead a mass.
Rai will wrap up his tour by visiting Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri Monday at his residence in the coastal town of Msaileh where the speaker will host a lunch for the patriarch.
The south visit is part of Rai’s tours of the country he has made since he was elected head of the powerful Maronite Catholic Church in March replacing Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir who had resigned. Rai visited Sidon in August in the first visit of the head of the Maronite Church to the city in 275 years.
Rai’s tour to the south comes amid a nationwide controversy sparked by his statements in France earlier this month on Syria and Hezbollah’s arms.
Rai has scrambled to contain the political storm sparked by his statements in Paris. He said his remarks that linked the fate of Hezbollah’s arms to an overall Middle East peace settlement and called for giving embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad a chance to carry out political reforms were taken out of context. Rai also warned that the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Syria would threaten the presence of Christians there.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 23, 2011, on page 3.