In honor of Pope Francis, the head of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Church defied threats to his life this week and came to Israel.
Cardinal Beshara Ra’i is the first Lebanese cleric to arrive in the Jewish State since 1948. Having arrived on Saturday to begin a week-long visit, he joined the pontiff Sunday for the first leg of his two-day tour of the Holy Land in Bethlehem. Much of the weekend, however, he spent traveling around Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem’s Old City and surrounds.
But on Monday he took what critics saw as an irrevocable political step by crossing into “pre-1967″ Israel — arriving at a Maronite community in the ancient port city of Jaffa (Yafo), next to Tel Aviv. There are numerous Lebanese Christians living in Israel, many of whom emigrated in order to stay alive after the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000.
Lebanese media called the cleric’s visit a “historic sin,” though he was greeted by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas with a medal, the ‘Star of Jerusalem’ for his efforts.
“We came here for the goal of strengthening our belief,” he told journalists when asked why he had taken the risk.
Sources aligned to the Hezbollah terrorist organization warned last week the Cardinal’s visit “cannot not pass quietly,” the Times of Israel reported. Likewise the Lebanese As-Safir quoted unnamed sources who said, “The patriarch’s move puts the Christian existence in the east in danger at a time when their presence is being increasingly targeted in the entire region.”
Christians have long been tormented by various Islamist groups, not only in Lebanon but also in Egypt. They have also been harassed in Palestinian Authority-controlled Bethlehem, where the city’s former Christian majority has now dwindled to a bare ten percent of its current Muslim majority population.
The pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar ran a fiery op-ed against the visit one week ago, warning, “When Beshara Ra’i travels to ‘Israel’ with the knowledge and consent of the occupation authorities, he creates a dangerous precedent . . . he humanizes the enemy, breaking the taboo and opening the door to all the believers eager to visit the holy sites. When will organized tours begin, guarded by Tzahal (the Israeli army) and hosted by Israeli companies eager to smuggle their products into Lebanon for years?”
The Cardinal responded with an interview in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, pointing out, “His Holiness the Pope will grace the patriarchate with his visit and it would be inappropriate for us not to welcome him in our lands Jordan and Palestine, which is Israel today. I know full well that Israel is an enemy state which occupies Lebanese land as well, and I respect Lebanese law [banning visits to Israel.] We have no meetings with Israeli officials and I am sorry that some Lebanese wish to create problems where there are none.”
Pope Francis, who began his visit to the region in Amman, pointed out before leaving Jordan that the freedom of worship is an essential human right, and expressed the hope of seeing that upheld throughout the Middle East.
It would appear that only in Israel are members of all three monotheistic faiths assured of their rights to worship.
Senior Maronite Archbishop Paul Sayah added the Cardinal’s visit was purely religious and not linked to the “regrettable situation that exists between Lebanon and Israel.”