Sunday, May 4, 2014

Eyes on Jerusalem | Patriarch of Antioch to visit Jerusalem

Beshara Boutros Rai
Beshara Boutros Rai is the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch. He is a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and was mentioned as a possible Arab papal candidate in February of 2013 after Benedict XVI retired from the position. Within the past few years he has gained notoriety for being a supporter of the Assad regime in Syria.

It was announced recently that he will meet with Pope Francis when he visits Jerusalem later this month. This has caused the patriarch to be severely criticized in the Muslim Arab press. The Arab language daily As-Safir, a newspaper with ties to Hezbollah, ran an article with the headline “Historic Sin: Rai goes to Israel”. No previous patriarch of Antioch has visited Israel since it became a state in 1948. Lebanon remains technically in a state of war with Israel.

It is the position of the Maronite church and Rai that the Jewish government of Israel is a government of occupation. Rai is taking a personal and professional risk by choosing to visit the pope in Israel. He has tried to smooth things over by saying that he will not meet or shake the hands of Israeli officials, but he will have to deal with Israeli officials in order to gain entry into the country. Rai says that the visit is strictly religious in nature and has no political significance. But the Arab press has already begun the process of politicizing the trip, whether there is a basis for it or not.

One wonders what can be so important about meeting the pope in Israel that Patriarch Rai would subject himself to such criticism and risk. His immediate predecessor Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir turned down a similar opportunity when John Paul II visited the holy land. With the present regional hostility toward Christians, this visit is also likely to raise the visibility and persecution of Christians in Lebanon and Syria.

The article attached below is from Al-Akhbar. Al Akhbar is a Lebanese news source with ties to the terrorist organization, Hezbollah.

Rai defies his predecessors, decides to join papal delegation to Israel

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.

For more information on Patriarch Rai, visit our forum.

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