The Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, who is currently on a precedent-setting visit to Israel as a member of Pope Francis’ delegation, met with two very different groups of Christians in northern Israel on Wednesday.
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The patriarch, the first Lebanese religious leader to visit Israel despite the formal state of war between the two countries, stayed on in the country after the pope’s departure to meet with Maronite communities in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jaffa and the Galilee.
On Wednesday morning, he celebrated mass on the site of the village of Kafr Bir’im, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1953, five years after the villagers left with the promise of a speedy return – which never happened. Hundreds of displaced villagers and their children attended the mass.
In an address to the crowd, the patriarch said that the presence of so many people from the younger generation made it clear that the refugees had not forgotten – and would not forget – their village. “You are the new saplings from which the return will grow,” he said.
He mentioned the weekly pilgrimages that the villagers make to the site, saying, “your presence is very important and your hopes for return will be answered.” He added that he would send a personal message to the Vatican regarding Israel’s failure to live up to its commitment, including its disregard of a Supreme Court decision for the past 64 years.
Kamal Yaqoub, a member of the council representing the displaced people of Bir’im, said that the visit represented a strong show of support for their struggle of 60-plus years.
The patriarch also visited the church in the village of Ikrit and the ruins of al-Mansoura, both Christian villages that were uprooted in 1948.
Later on Wednesday, he was due to celebrate Mass on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with former soldiers from the South Lebanese Army, a Lebanese militia that fought alongside Israel, and their families, The mainly Christian SLA veterans have been in Israel since the withdrawal from Lebanon 14 years ago.
The patriarch’s meeting with the former SLA soldiers, like the visit to Israel itself, has drawn significant criticism in Lebanon and the Arab media. The patriarch has stressed that his visit is religious and spiritual and does not constitute recognition of Israel.
The former SLA soldiers and their families were expected to ask the patriarch to intervene on their behalf with the Lebanese authorities, in order to halt what they say is the persecution of them and to work for the granting of clemency for those who want to return to Lebanon.
The patriarch’s visit "gives us hope that someone didn't forget us ... and someone is fighting for us, that they want us to come back home," said Vivian Shadid, 25, whose father was an SLA officer.
The patriarch said he intended dealing with all the issues that had been raised during his visit via the Vatican and members of the international community that have relations with Israel. "The only way is through the Vatican because we cannot deal with the state," he said, referring to Israel.