The Maronite archbishop in the Holy Land, Mussa al-Hajj defended the Maronite patriarch’s historic first visit to Jerusalem to welcome Pope Francis and said it is aimed at strengthening the “Christian presence” in the Middle East.
“This visit is to assure and confirm the Christian presence and identity in the face of all the attempts to weaken the Eastern Christian historical presence in the Middle East,” al-Hajj, told reporters in the Israeli city of Haifa.
Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai’s visit has come under fire in his native Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories for planning to join Pope Francis during the papal visit to Jerusalem. As soon as he announced earlier this month his planned visit it prompted condemnation from media close to Lebanon’s Iranian backed Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which branded the visit as a ” historic sin.”
As-Safir newspaper which is closely linked to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah ran an editorial headlined “Historic sin: Rai goes to Israel.”
Calling it a “dangerous precedent,” the daily argued that the trip would “not serve the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese, nor those of Palestine and the Palestinians nor Christians and Christianity.”
Another newspaper Al-Akhbar which is also closely linked to the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, said a group of Lebanese politicians will try to dissuade Rai “from visiting Jerusalem as long as it is under Israeli occupation, which would signify a normalization with the occupier.”
The Iranian and Hezbollah backed Palestinian movement Hamas also opposed the visit
On the other hand Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed the visit and so did Lebanon’s March 14 MP Marwan Hamadeh.
On May 5 Hamadeh slammed the criticism of the planned visit by Rai to Jerusalem calling it unjustified and accused the parties that are criticizing the Patriarch of being more aligned to Iran than to the Palestinian cause.
“I was shocked by some of the political positions coming from authorities who say they [practice] patriotism and resistance, [but are] targeting with all available means Rai’s visit to Al-Quds [Jerusalem] as part of the Vatican’s delegation,” Hamadeh said in a statement .
“They are resisting the Church’s attempt to affirm the city’s holy character and remove the Jewish shroud that Israel is trying to wrap around it.”
“The outcry coming from voices known for their loyalty to the so called Quds Force, is completely at odds with [their] supposed excuse of resistance, and serves the Judaization of Al-Quds [Jerusalem.]”
Rai, whose church is the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon, said on May 3 he would travel to the Holy Land to welcome the Roman Catholic pontiff during his May 24-26 visit.
Rai who became a cardinal in 2012 is set to be the first patriarch to do so since the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem by Israel, which is technically still at war with Lebanon.
Rai’s predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, accompanied Pope John Paul II to Jordan in 2000 but declined to visit Israel. The issue didn’t arise during the 1964 meeting of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athanagoras because East Jerusalem was then under Jordanian control.
Lebanese citizens are banned from entering Israel, but Maronite clergy may to travel to the Holy Land to minister to the estimated 10,000 faithful there. Rai who insists that the trip has no political significance will travel on a Vatican diplomatic passport.
What is significant here according to analysts is that FPM leader Michel Aoun who is reportedly extremely close to the patriarch never raised his voice in defense of this visit which is extremely important for the Christian Maronite community in the entire Middle East .
Aoun is closely allied with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime .
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