BEIRUT -- A visit planned by the leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect to Jerusalem to meet Pope Francis has unleashed a barrage of criticism in the Arab country, which remains at war with Israel.
Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic church, will be the first leader of the church to visit Jerusalem since the Arab part of the contested city was captured by Israel in a 1967 war. Francis will start a three-day pilgrimage to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel on May 24.
Over the past decades, Israel has invaded Lebanon several times, occupying part of the neighboring country’s territory for 18 years until it withdrew in 2000. The two countries have not signed a peace agreement, and fighting breaks out regularly. In 2006, a 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.
Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis.
The Lebanese media went on the attack following the announcement, with As Safir, the country’s leading daily newspaper, dubbing the visit "a historic sin."
Pierre Abi Saab, the deputy editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Akhbar, accused Rai in a recent editorial of setting "a dangerous precedent," opening a "door to all believers who are eager to visit the holy places." He called on the cleric to reconsider a trip that would "humanize (Israeli) occupation of Palestinian territories until "the hour of liberation comes.
But the cardinal did not budge, and even raised his voice in a discussion with reporters earlier this week.
"Jerusalem is our city, we Christians, before all people," Rai said. "I am going there to say that it is our city and that Jerusalem is Arab."
A church official in Beirut, Father Abdou Abu Kasm told The Associated Press that the church was surprised by the media response because the visit has no political component and is "purely to receive the pope and the parish."
"He will not meet any Israeli officials during this visit," Abu Kasm said.
The last top Maronite cleric to visit Jerusalem was Patriarch Bolus Moochy. He traveled to Jerusalem in 1964 to receive the pope in the eastern part of the city, ruled then by Jordan.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Rai wasn’t part of the papal delegation and that his decision to go to Jerusalem was independent of the pope and the trip organizers. Lombardi said he understood Rai was invited by Patriarch Twal, who has jurisdiction over the place, and that such an invitation would be natural given there is a Maronite presence there.
"The decision on how best to act naturally belongs to Patriarch Rai himself," he said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said he isn’t sure if Rai will be part of the delegation arriving by helicopter or if he will be among those in the motorcade who will be traveling at the same time. He did not elaborate.
The militant Hezbollah group, which spearheaded guerrilla attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon since the 1980s, remained silent about the visit. Analysts say the Shiite group is trying to avoid a clash with Lebanon’s Christians, many of whom are allied with the Shiite Muslim group.
"They are angered but don’t want to pick a fight with Christians," said Qassim Qassir, a Hezbollah expert who writes for the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir.
Habib Shallouk, a journalist who writes on Christian affairs for An-Nahar newspaper, defended Rai, saying, "It is not a shame if he goes."
"This is not a trip for normalization," Shallouk said.