Lebanon's Christian Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai
Lebanon's Christian Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai Photo by Reuters
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Lebanon's Patriarch Beshara al-Rai's announcement last week that he would join Pope Francis in Jerusalem as part of his trip to Israel later this month sparked controversy in the country, AFP reported.

Critics claim that the head of the Maronite church will be legitimizing Israel's occupation if he visits Israel. "We cannot find words to describe it other than as a terrible mistake which history books will remember in deep red," AFP quoted a statement from an article in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar.

The Pope is scheduled to tour the region May 24-26 and his itinerary includes stops in Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

Supporters argue the trip affirms Jerusalem as a multi-religious and multi-cultural city. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sent a message to al-Rai welcome him to "Palestine, your second home." Hamas, on the other hand, has urged him to cancel the trip.

Responding to the criticism, Rai said this week that he has a clerical duty to receive the Pope. "I’m going to Jerusalem to say this is our city, and Jerusalem is Arab," he was reported as saying.

Rai is the leading official of the Maronite church, part of the Roman Catholic Church. There are about 900,000 Maronites in Lebanon, a quarter of the population.

If he does join, he would be the first Maronite patriarch to do so since Israel's establishment in 1948.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Rai was not part of the official delegation and was going on his own initiative.