Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Visits Israel, First Since 1948

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Lebanese Maronite patriarch Beshara al-Rahi takes part in an open-air mass led by the Pope Francis on May 25, 2014.Credit: AFP

The head of Lebanon's largest Christian denomination has visited a parish in Israel, becoming the first Lebanese religious leader to come to the Jewish state since its creation in 1948.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, a Maronite Catholic, made the trip despite criticism at home. His critics say the pilgrimage implies normalization with Israel at a time when the two countries remain formally at war.

Rai said Monday that his journey is celebrating the roots of Christianity in the region. In a veiled response to his critics, he says he was misunderstood and that his journey is purely spiritual.

He was cheered by several dozen faithful as he arrived at a Maronite parish in Jaffa, today part of Israel's second largest city, Tel Aviv.

Rai had caused a stir in Lebanon, which is officially in a state of war with Israel, for his choice to join Pope Francis on parts of the pontiff's three-day Holy Land pilgrimage. Hezbollah and other groups hostile to Israel slammed the decision.

The patriarch arrived late Sunday in Jerusalem after accompanying Francis in the West Bank, but he departed from the parts of the Catholic leader's itinerary that involved meetings with Israelis.

On Monday morning, Rai left Jerusalem, visiting a monastery outside the city on his way to Jaffa. He is to join the pope again in the afternoon for Mass at Jerusalem's Cenacle, the room where Christians believe the Last Supper was held.

Francis' trip ends Monday, but Rai's will continue. He is scheduled Tuesday to return to the West Bank for a visit to Beit Sahour and is slated to return to Israel Wednesday and Thursday, touring the north, including the Galilee region, Nazareth, Acre and Haifa, where many of the country's Arab Christian minority live.

He will celebrate Mass with the Lebanese community living in Israel and is slated to return to Lebanon via Jordan Thursday.

"Normalization" of ties with Israel is a taboo topic in Lebanon, which was invaded by its southern neighbour twice during the 1975-1990 civil war, in which Palestinian forces played a major role.

Lebanese citizens are banned from visiting Israel, and people with Israeli stamps in their passports may not enter Lebanon.