CAPERNAUM, Israel — The Lebanese patriarch of the Maronite church celebrated mass with exiled former members of an Israeli-backed Christian militia on Wednesday as part of his controversial trip to the Jewish state.
Hundreds of Lebanese Maronites came to Saint Peter’s church in the village of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where Christ is said to have delivered many of his most famous teachings.
But those who attended on Wednesday, a fragment of the thousands who fled across the border with Israeli forces in 2000 when Israel ended its 22-year occupation of Lebanon, said Beshara Rai’s historic visit would do little to change their circumstances.
Trained, financed and armed by Israel, the Christian South Lebanon Army (SLA) battled Palestinians and Shiite Hezbollah fighters during the occupation of southern Lebanon.
Many SLA veterans feel they have been abandoned by Israeli authorities in their adopted home, often working in low-paying factory, restaurant or cleaning jobs, but unable to return home for fear of retribution from Hezbollah and others who considered them traitors.
“The patriarch will not grant us anything,” Boulous Nahra, originally from the town of Qlaiaa, told AFP, adding he would consider going home if the circumstances allowed.
“We never wanted to leave our country and the patriarch knows that,” said Henry Al-Ghafri.
“Israel is not our country, I want to return to Lebanon (but) a lot of people in Lebanon… have disowned us now,” he added.
But Victor Nader, former commander of an SLA special forces unit, said he was content with his new life.
“We are very happy here and my son is serving in the Israeli army,” he said.
Rai came to Israel earlier in the week to join a brief visit by Pope Francis.
The Lebanese cleric was condemned by media close to Hezbollah, which said traveling to arch-enemy Israel would be a “sin”.
Lebanon remains technically at war with Israel and bans its citizens from entering the Jewish state.
But Maronite clergy are permitted to travel to Israel to minister to the estimated 10,000 faithful there.
Earlier on Wednesday Rai visited the derelict Israeli Christian village of Kufr Bir’im, near the Lebanese border, whose inhabitants were evicted by the Israeli army in 1948, six months after Israel was established, and never allowed to return.
The same happened in the nearby village of Iqrit, and Rai vowed to help the Christians of both places, who now live in nearby towns and cities, to reclaim their homes.
“We will work through the Vatican and lobby the pope until the world hears your case,” he said.