The head of Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination visited a parish in central Israel on Monday, becoming the first Lebanese religious leader to come to the Jewish state since its creation in 1948.

Cardinal Bechara Ra’i, a Maronite Catholic, 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.

Ra’i said his journey, tied to a visit by Pope Francis, celebrates the roots of Christianity in the region. In a veiled response to his critics, he said his motives were misunderstood.

“With all the difficulties that you heard about, with all the explanations that are not related to our visit, with all the understandings that have nothing to do with our thoughts, we came here for the goal of strengthening our belief,” he said.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, center, visits a church in Jaffa, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, May 26, 2014.  (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Cardinal Bechara Ra’i, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, center, visits a church in Jaffa, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, May 26, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Archbishop Paul Sayah, a senior Maronite cleric, added that Ra’i’s visit is purely religious. He said it is not linked to “the regrettable situation that exists between Lebanon and Israel.”

Israel and Lebanon are in a state of war, and Israel held a “security zone” inside Lebanon for 18 years until it withdrew in 2000. 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. However, Maronite clergy are exempt from the ban to enable them to stay in touch with the faithful in the Holy Land.

About 11,000 Maronites live in Israel.

Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai (screen capture: Youtube)

Maronite Patriarch Beshara Ra’i (screen capture: Youtube)

The cardinal is on a weeklong visit to the Holy Land. He spent the first two days in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, but on Monday ventured into Israel for the first time.

Ra’i was cheered by several dozen faithful as he arrived at a Maronite parish in Jaffa, an ancient port that has been incorporated into Israel’s second-largest city, Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is the heart of secular Israel, somewhat removed from the daily friction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With its beachfront high-rises and pulsating nightlife, Tel Aviv also bears great resemblance to Beirut, the Lebanese capital, some 200 kilometers (130 miles) to the north.

Later in the week, Ra’i plans to meet with parishioners in northern Israel and celebrate Mass for Lebanese Christians who fought alongside Israeli troops during Israel’s occupation of the south Lebanon “security zone” buffer against armed groups.

The fighters of the South Lebanon Army and their families fled to Israel after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. In Lebanon, they are widely seen as traitors.

Ra’i’s visit overlapped with a Holy Land pilgrimage on Sunday and Monday by Francis. Ra’i accompanied the pope during his tour of biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank on Sunday, but followed a separate program on Monday when the pontiff’s itinerary included meetings with Israeli leaders.

Lebanese media have portrayed Ra’i’s visit to Israel as a “historic sin.”

However, the cardinal was embraced by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who awarded him with a medal, the “Star of Jerusalem,” for visiting the city and strengthening its links to the Arab world.

Sources close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah had warned last week that Ra’i’s historic visit to Israel “will not pass quietly.”

Lebanese media affiliated with Hezbollah reported massive pressure exerted on the cleric to cancel the trip, with warnings that it may endanger the lives of Christians across the Middle East.

As-Safir, a Lebanese daily affiliated with Hezbollah, reported that pressure was also exerted on the Vatican’s ambassador to Lebanon, warning him of “the possible domestic repercussions on Lebanon of the visit to the occupied land.”

“The patriarch’s move puts the Christian existence in the east in danger,” unnamed Christian sources told As-Safir, “at a time when their presence is being increasingly targeted in the entire region.” The sources warned that Islamists could use the trip as an excuse to attack Christians. Ra’i’s predecessor Nasrallah Sfeir had declined to join a papal visit to the holy land, and Ra’i could use that precedent to “climb down the tree,” the sources added.

One article castigated Ra’i on principled grounds, far from the practical concerns for the safety of Middle East Christians.

Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

“Naivete is prohibited in politics,” read an article in pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar last Monday.

“The Maronite patriarch’s visit to ‘Israel’ at this sensitive time in the history the Arab region cannot be considered merely ‘religious’ or ‘pastoral.’”

“When Beshara Ra’i travels to ‘Israel,’ with the knowledge and consent of the occupation authorities, he creates a dangerous precedent … he humanizes the enemy, breaking the taboo and opening the door to all the believers eager to visit the holy sites. When will organized tours begin, guarded by Tzahal (the IDF) and hosted by Israeli companies eager to smuggle their products into Lebanon for years?”

“The patriarch’s visit to Jerusalem cannot pass quietly,” the daily said. 

Speaking to liberal Lebanese daily An-Nahar, Ra’i rebuffed the attacks.

‘When Beshara Ra’i travels to ‘Israel,’ with the knowledge and consent of the occupation authorities, he creates a dangerous precedent … he humanizes the enemy, breaking the taboo and opening the door to all the believers eager to visit the holy sites’

“His holiness the pope will grace the patriarchate with his visit and it would be inappropriate for us not to welcome him in our lands Jordan and Palestine, which is Israel today,” Ra’i told the daily. “I know full well that Israel is an enemy state which occupies Lebanese land as well, and I respect Lebanese law [prohibiting visits to Israel]. We have no meetings with Israeli officials, and I am sorry that some Lebanese wish to create problems where there are none.”

While Coptic pilgrims from Egypt regularly visit Israel’s holy sites, Egypt’s Pope Tawadros II has outlawed such pilgrimages. Trips to the holy sites continue to stir controversy in the Muslim world, with opponents accusing visitors of “normalization” with Israel.