Beirut (AsiaNews) - Prayers for peace in the Middle East were heard again today at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi celebrated Mass this morning. The service was part of the visit the cardinal is making to the local Maronite community. Yesterday, he visited the Jaffa parish where he was joyfully welcomed by the faithful.
The patriarch's decision to visit Maronite communities in Palestine and Israel as head of the largest Catholic Church in the region in order to welcome the Pope was harshly criticised by two newspapers close to Hizbollah and Syria, as-Safir and Al-Akhbar, who referred to it as an "historic sin" since, in their view, a visit to Israel would be tantamount to "normalisation" of relations with a country with which Lebanon is still formally at war.
For this reason, Lebanese citizens are not allowed to visit Israel or have economic relations with the Jewish state. However, the Maronite clergy is excluded from its provisions given the presence of about 11,000 Maronite Christians in Israel. The latter include former soldiers of the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army, and their families, who moved to Israel when Israeli troops pulled back from Lebanon in 2000. The patriarch will also celebrate a Mass for them.
In a statement, the patriarchate had pointed out that the patriarch's visit was "exclusively religious."
"Our presence in the Holy Land," the cardinal said, "precedes the existence of Israel. I am going to Jerusalem to say that this is our city, and that the Maronite Church is present there with a community of believers. I am going as a member of the family to meet his loved ones."
He had added that he was not going to meet Israeli leaders. Indeed, on Sunday, he accompanied Pope Francis on his pilgrimage, but yesterday when the pope was scheduled to meet with Israeli leaders, he did not.
During the visit, the patriarch also visited the West Bank, where the Maronites are present.
On 8 May, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had welcomed the announcement of the patriarch's visit, and when the latter came, he awarded him the "Star of Jerusalem" for his visit to the city and for strengthening its ties with the Arab world.