A historic visit to Israel by the head of Lebanon’s largest Christian sect in late May “will not pass quietly,” sources close to Islamist Lebanese movement Hezbollah warned on Monday.
While Maronite patriarch Beshara Al-Rahi asserted that his trip to the holy land on May 24-26 together with Pope Francis is “a religious visit and in no way a political one,” Lebanese media affiliated with Hezbollah has reporting massive pressure exerted on the cleric to cancel the trip, warning that it may endanger the lives of Christians across the Middle East.
As-Safir, a Lebanese daily affiliated with Hezbollah, reported that Christian politicians will meet with Al-Rahi upon his return from a trip overseas and try to convince him to forgo his visit to Israel. Pressure may also be 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. Al-Rahi’s predecessor Nasrallah Sfeir had declined to join a papal visit to the holy land, and Al-Rahi could use that precedent to “climb down the tree,” the sources added.
One article castigated Al-Rahi on principled grounds, far from the practical concerns for the safety of Middle East Christians.
“Naivete is prohibited in politics,” read an article in pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar on 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 Al-Rahi 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 on Monday, Al-Rahi rebuffed the attacks.
‘When Beshara Al-Rahi 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,” Al-Rahi 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.”
Al-Rahi will travel to Israel by land via Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, not on the airplane carrying Pope Francis to Ben Gurion airport, his deputy Boulus Siah told An-Nahar.
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.