Beirut (AFP) – A visit to Jerusalem by the patriarch of the Lebanon-based Maronite church to greet Pope Francis would be a “historic sin”, a leading newspaper close to the anti-Israeli Hezbollah said Saturday.
Patriarch Beshara Rai, whose church is the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon, told AFP on Friday he would travel to the Holy Land to welcome the pontiff during his brief May 24-26 visit.
In doing so, he would be the first patriarch to do so since the creation in 1948 of Israel, with which Lebanon is technically at war.
In response, the leading Arab nationalist daily As-Safir ran a critical piece headlined “Historic sin: Rai goes to Israel”.
Calling it a “dangerous precedent”, the daily argued that the trip would “not serve the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese, nor those of Palestine and the Palestinians nor Christians and Christianity”.
It speculated on whether the patriarch, who is also a Roman Catholic cardinal, “would shake hands with Israeli leaders who will be in the front row to welcome Pope Francis to Jerusalem”.
Even if he does not, he would still have to coordinate his trip with Israeli officials, the paper added, claiming that the visit “is part of the normalisation between the head of the Catholic church and the occupier”.
Al-Akhbar, another newspaper close to Hezbollah, said a group of Lebanese politicians will try to dissuade Rai “from visiting Jerusalem as long as it is under Israeli occupation, which would signify a normalisation with the occupier”.
Lebanese citizens are banned from entering Israel, but Maronite clergy may to travel to the Holy Land to minister to the estimated 10,000 faithful there.
Rai insisted that the trip will be strictly religious and has no political significance.
The Maronite church has its roots in the Fertile Crescent of the early 5th century. It is named after St Maron, a hermit whose holiness and miracles attracted many followers.
Following a bloody persecution a century later, the Maronites fled to the mountains of what is now Lebanon to seek refuge.
They have their own distinct theology, spirituality, liturgy and code of canon law, but are in full communion with Rome.