Maronite patriarch in Holy Land to "welcome", not accompany Pope Francis
by Fady Noun
Card Beshara Rai reacts to attacks by groups close to Syria, Iran and Hizbollah, who accuse him of wanting to normalise relations with Israel. Instead, he notes that, as head of the Maronite Church, it is his duty to welcome the pope during his apostolic visit, a stance backed by Mahmoud Abbas, for whom the matter is religious, not political.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - By welcoming the visit of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cuts short a shameful campaign by two Lebanese newspapers close to Hizbollah, Syria and Iran.

The Palestinian leader, who spoke with Cardinal Rai by phone, said that the latter is "welcome to his second homeland, Palestine." In his view, the patriarch's visit is religious, not political, and "does not represent in any way a normalisation of relations with Israel." Instead, it provides an important opportunity to maintain "the Arab character of Jerusalem and Palestine".

"We have been present in the Holy Land before Israel came into being," Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said on Tuesday upon his return from Europe where he attended the canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II and met young European Maronites in Pontmain (France). "I am going to Jerusalem the way one would do when going home, to meet relatives. No one can tell me my duties."

Faced with a campaign orchestrated by circles close to Syria and Hizbollah, which want to stop him from going to the Holy Land for the papal visit (24-26 May) under the pretext that it would be a step toward "normalisation" with Israel, the patriarch did not mince words after he landed at Beirut airport. 

"I am not going to accompany the Pope," he said. "I will be welcoming him. He is coming to my home and it is my duty to welcome him. This is not a political issue; it is purely a pastoral one. To anyone who is annoyed or embarrassed by my visit, consider yourself exempt from visiting Bkirki."

"I am sorry if this upsets some people, but it is unacceptable for anyone to tell me what I should or shouldn't do, accept or decline." Indeed, "No one better than I respects the Lebanese state and its sovereignty. I do much more than many others!" the patriarch said against those who believe that his decision violates Lebanese laws.

"I have no personal relations with Israel," he said emphatically. "I am going to Jerusalem and the Holy Land on a pastoral visit, and I explicitly said that I do not wish to meet any Israeli officials. On the contrary, I shall speak to the Palestinian people in Bethlehem, alongside President Mahmoud Abbas, to tell them, 'You have the right to a state; Bethlehem is yours'."

"I have a cause and I know how to defend it," the patriarch explained. "The Holy Land existed before the birth of the Israeli state. Will I be banned from visiting my people? By going to the Holy Land, I am visiting my own people, as I am duty bound. As patriarch, it is my duty to visit every five years."

"Do not forget that according to the pre-1967 borders, the Maronite Church has two dioceses in the Holy Land. The first includes Jerusalem, Palestine and Jordan; the second, in Israeli territory, consists mainly of the Galilee."