The Lebanon-based Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai will not meet with Israeli officials and will not visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial during his upcoming visit to the country, the Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday, a day after Rai was severely criticized by Hezbollah and other Arab groups for his travel plans.
Rai, whose church is the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon, is scheduled to come to Israel and the Palestinian territories on the occasion of Pope Francis’s May 24-26 visit. He will be the first Maronite patriarch to visit the State of Israel, which is still in technically at war with Lebanon, but insisted that his visit is apolitical.
Rai is coming to Israel with a number of Christian faith leaders from across the globe, but he is not part of the pontiff’s official entourage, an official in the Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel. The clergyman will attend various events with religious significance, but he will not accompany the pope during his meetings with senior Israeli officials, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Shimon Peres, the official said.
Despite the fact that he is not part of the Vatican’s official delegation, Rai will reportedly travel on a diplomatic passport issued by the mini-state.
On May 26, the pope is scheduled to lay a wreath at the grave of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl and visit Yad Vashem. He will be accompanied by Netanyahu and Peres. Later that day, Francis will also sit down with the two Israeli leaders in their respective official residences.
Several Islamists groups, such as Hamas and especially Hezbollah, condemned Rai for his plans to visit Israel. Media outlets close to Hezbollah said traveling to the group’s arch-enemy Israel would be a “historic sin.”
As-Safir, a leading Arab nationalist daily, argued that the trip was a “dangerous precedent” that would “not serve the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese, nor those of Palestine and the Palestinians nor Christians and Christianity.”
The paper speculated as to 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 the visit “is part of the normalization between the head of the Catholic church and the occupier (Israel).”
Al-Akhbar, another pro-Hezbollah daily, 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 normalization with the occupier.”
Lebanese citizens are banned from entering Israel, but Maronite clergy may travel to the Holy Land to minister to the estimated 10,000 faithful there.
Rai insists that his voyage has no political significance.
“The pope is coming to the Holy Land and I am the one who should welcome him… it is part of my prerogative as a patriarch of the Antioch and the Levant to go there,” he said last week. “I consider myself going to my home and to my people… Jerusalem existed and was our home long before Israel was created… I realize Lebanon considers Israel an enemy… which is why I asked not to meet with [Israeli] officials there.”
Rai’s predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, did not join Pope Paul II when he visited Jerusalem, joining him only during the parts of the trip in taking place in Jordan.
AFP contributed to this report.