Rai defies his predecessors, decides to join papal delegation to Israel
By: Lea al-Qazzi
Published Thursday, May 1, 2014
In almost every controversial matter, Maronite Patriarch Mar Beshara al-Rai plays a starring role. After a series of contradictory positions and his visit to Syria in February 2013, he decided to take a step that his predecessors refrained from, visiting occupied Palestine as part of a papal delegation.
During the civil war, the Maronite patriarch opposed the relationship between right-wing militias and Israel. There are a number of Maronite religious orders in the Holy Land and a Maronite diocese headed by Bishop Boulos Sayyah, who for 16 years used the Naqoura crossing to travel between Lebanon and occupied Palestine. Sayyah’s visits took place with the knowledge and permission of the Lebanese state. But no head of a Lebanese church has stepped foot on these lands before because they did not want such a step to be perceived as recognition of or normalization with the Zionist entity.
The visit by Maronite Patriarch Mar Beshara al-Rai to Jerusalem in May can not go unnoticed, especially since no Lebanese patriarch has done so before. Why does Rai then, unlike his predecessor, insist on traveling to occupied Palestine as part of the papal visit?
Former Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir recalls in his memoir, as reported by journalist Antoine Saad, that he refused to accompany Pope John Paul II on his journey to the Holy Land because “there is a domestic situation that we must take into account. We have bishops that travel between Lebanon and Palestine, but taking into consideration the domestic situation, we preferred not to do it.”
Saad tells Al-Akhbar: “There is no enmity in the dogmatic sense, but Sfeir was always against the Israeli policy regarding the Palestinian cause and its actions in Lebanon.” He adds: “The position of the Maronite patriarchate was always clear in its hostility towards Israel and its belief that this entity has played a role that has caused us many calamities.” It is from this perspective that “Sfeir raised many questions during the civil war about the relationship between the Christian militias and Israel, which led to disagreements and tensions between him and the Lebanese Forces.”
However, one can not compare the two patriarchs according to Saad, they had different issues to take into consideration. “We should not forget that Israel had not withdrawn its army [from Lebanon] when Sfeir refused to participate in the Vatican’s delegation.” That is why, “I don’t consider the visit [by Rai] a normalization of relations. There are issues beyond politics and conflicts, namely Rai’s sense of attachment to the Holy Land,” Saad concludes.
Patriarchal deputy, Bishop Samir Mazloum, does not believe that Israel needs a visit of this kind to exploit politically. “The Arabs offer it a lot more,” he says. In an interview with Al-Akhbar he emphasized that a visit to Jerusalem “does not mean recognizing Israel. The position of the Maronite patriarchate is known. But there are obligations towards the pope and his visit first, and towards Maronites in Palestine second.” Even though Pope Francis is not the first pope to visit Jerusalem, Mazloum believes that the visit is a “historical occasion that compels Rai to be present.”
He hoped that people would not make a big deal of the issue. “It has nothing to do with normalization, the patriarch is not a political figure, he is visiting his parishioners and nothing more.” Israel will continue to be in Bkirki’s view “a usurping, occupying country that deprived a people of their land and attacked Lebanon.” As for Sfeir’s refusal to go on a similar trip, Mazloum says: “It was a different situation. The circumstances today, in Rai’s opinion, are different.”
One of the bishops who does not feel comfortable with the visit is trying to understand what made Rai agree to go on this trip. He tries to justify it by saying that the Maronite church has a bishop in occupied Palestine and “he remained Lebanese despite his travels between Lebanon and the Holy Land.” The patriarch is visiting his parishioners “and not the state in the same way that he visits other countries, especially Syria.”
Rai brought up the issue at the meeting of the Council of Maronite Bishops. He said the pope is going to visit the region and “I will take advantage of this trip to visit the church’s parishioners.” No one protested publicly, even though some of the bishops did not feel comfortable with the idea. The visit’s program is still not clear, but “there definitely won’t be meetings with any political figure since the visit is not to a state,” Rai said.
For some, Syria might be a provocative state that committed abuses during its tutelage of Lebanon but there is a huge difference. It is enough that the articles of the Lebanese penal code that punish any person who enters an enemy state does not apply to Syria. Drawing a parallel between Rai’s two visits is nothing but an excuse to justify an unnecessary visit. The patriarch could have chosen not to participate in the Vatican’s delegation, especially since there is a bishop who looks after the parish.
Who knows, perhaps Rai did not intend to raise controversy. The question here is not meant to be an indictment or an accusation of treason. But neither Rai, nor the bishops who describe Israel as a “usurping state” can use some Arab leaders’ relationship with the Zionist entity as an excuse. The purpose of the patriarch’s trip is to visit the Maronite community in Palestine but can he trust that Israel will not somehow implicate him by making him shake the hand of one of its officials in front of TV cameras?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.