Lebanon Maronite Church head’s planned Jerusalem visit stirs controversy

By Reuters Staff
May 8, 2014
(Lebanon's Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai attends a memorial ceremony for victims killed in a militant attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in 2010, at the Church in Baghdad October 31, 2011. Fifty-two hostages and police were killed during an attack on the church on October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Saad Shalash )

(Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai in Baghdad October 31, 2011. ┬áREUTERS/Saad Shalash )

A planned visit by the head of the Maronite church to Jerusalem has stirred an outcry in Lebanon, which is still technically at war with its southern neighbour Israel.

Lebanon’s Patriarch Beshara al-Rai said last week he would join Pope Francis during a May 24-26 tour of the Holy Land, a visit that would make him the first Maronite patriarch to do so since its creation in 1948.

Supporters say the trip will help affirm Jerusalem’s multi-religious character, while critics have accused the church leader of legitimising a state many Arabs see as a symbol of injustice, humiliation and occupation.

“We cannot find words to describe it other than as a terrible mistake which history books will remember in deep red,” read an article in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar.

“It will be a ‘suicidal step’ it could be difficult to remedy in the future,” it said.

Palestinian reactions have been divided. “Welcome to Palestine, your second home,” President Mahmoud Abbas said in a message to Rai. But the Islamist movement Hamas urged the trip be cancelled, saying it would “normalise” Israel’s occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state.

Rai, a Catholic Cardinal, is the leading official in the Maronite church, which follows an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Maronites number about 900,000 in Lebanon, around a quarter of the population, and also have a presence in Syria and Cyprus.

Church officials have hurried to insist the visit would not amount to normalisation and said Rai has been clear in his opposition to Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

Read the full story by Alexander Dziadosz and Laila Bassam here.

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