Lebanon church head’s planned Jerusalem visit stirs controversy

Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai

(Reuters) – A planned visit by the head of the Maronite church to Jerusalem has stirred an outcry in Lebanon, which is still technically at war with its southern neighbor Israel.

Lebanon’s Patriarch Beshara al-Rai said last week he would join Pope Francis during a May 24-26 tour of the Holy Land, a visit that would make him the first Maronite patriarch to do so since its creation in 1948.

Supporters say the trip will help affirm Jerusalem’s multi-religious character, while critics have accused the church leader of legitimizing a state many Arabs see as a symbol of injustice, humiliation and occupation.

“We cannot find words to describe it other than as a terrible mistake which history books will remember in deep red,” read an article in the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar.

“It will be a ‘suicidal step’ it could be difficult to remedy in the future,” it said.

Palestinian reactions have been divided. “Welcome to Palestine, your second home,” President Mahmoud Abbas said in a message to Rai. But the Islamist movement Hamas urged the trip be cancelled, saying it would “normalize” Israel’s occupation of lands Palestinians want for a future state.