BEIRUT –– A spokesman for the Maronite Catholic Church said Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch, will welcome Pope Francis to the Holy Land as head of the largest Antiochian Catholic Church and will not be there “to legitimate any one’s political claims.”
Archbishop Paul Sayah, patriarchal vicar for the Maronite Catholic Church, said Jerusalem and Bethlehem, two cities Pope Francis will visit during his May 24-26 pilgrimage, are part of the church’s territory, since Maronite Catholics live there.
“Patriarch Rai is not accompanying and he is not a member of (Pope Francis’) official delegation, and he will not be with the pope on the official ceremonies within the Israeli areas because there his visit is totally pastoral and has another dimension, considering the political situation between Lebanon and Israel,” said Archbishop Sayah, who spent 16 years as archbishop of Haifa, Israel, and patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
The archbishop said Cardinal Rai had received an official invitation from Palestinian authorities, and Lebanon and Palestine have diplomatic relations. He also said that, during and after the papal visit, the cardinal will visit Maronite Catholics in Israel.
Israel and Lebanon have a history of political tension. As recently as 2006, Israel fought a 24-day war with Hezbollah after the Lebanese Shiite organization captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several more in a cross-border raid.
Some Lebanese have criticized the Israeli leg of the cardinal’s journey, calling it a dangerous precedent toward “normalization” of relations with Israel. Cardinal Rai will enter and leave Israel via the West Bank, crossing from Jordan.
A Hezbollah-associated newspaper, As-Safir, called Cardinal Rai’s visit a “historic sin.”
Wadie Abunasser, a political consultant who is serving as media coordinator for the Maronite patriarch during his visit, called it “very delicate,” even more so than the visit of Pope Francis. Just as the pope plays both a spiritual and political role, he said, so does the Maronite patriarch in Lebanon.
The cardinal will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas but not with any Israeli officials. On the day the pope holds meetings with Israeli leaders, Cardinal Rai will visit Maronite faithful in Jaffa, Israel.
An estimated 10,000 Maronite Catholics live in Israel, with the largest contingency in the northern coastal city of Haifa.
Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky.