Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai’s first visit to Jerusalem to welcome Pope Francis will help strengthen the “Christian presence and identity” in the Middle East, despite attempts to weaken its historic presence.
This is according to a statement issued Wednesday by the Maronite archbishop in the Holy Land, Mussa al-Hajj, ahead of the Pope’s May 24-26 visit.
The announcement of Patriarch Rai’s visit earlier this month prompted condemnation from the leading Arab nationalist daily As-Safir, which called the decision “Historic sin: Rai goes to Israel”.
According to the piece by As-Safir, the visit sets a “dangerous precedent” that would “not serve the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese, nor those of Palestine and the Palestinians nor Christians and Christianity”.
But Archbishop al-Hajj told reporters that the visit’s aim is to “assure and confirm the Christian presence and identity in the face of all the attempts to weaken the Eastern Christian historical presence in the Middle East.”
Patriarch Rai’s visit to Jerusalem will be the first by a Maronite patriarch since the 1948 creation of Israel, which Lebanon is technically still at war with. Lebanese citizens are banned from entering Israel, but Maronite clergy may travel to the Holy Land.
The Maronite Church is the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon, with some 10,000 members.
With the visit, Archbishop al-Hajj said, “Patriarch Beshara Rai aims to surpass borders.”