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Politics overshadows Lebanese Maronite leader's historic visit to Israel

The head of Lebanon's Maronite church will make history this month when he becomes the first such figure to visit Israel since its foundation in 1948.

The announcement that patriarch Beshara Rai will meet with the Pope on his May 24-26 tour of the Holy Land and Jerusalem has caused uproar in parts of the Lebanese media, particularly pro-Hezbollah outlets, with the As Safir newspaper describing the move as a "historic sin" that could undermine the resistance against Israel's occupation of parts of southern Lebanon.

Religious officials insist the visit is purely religious in scope, and has no political significance. "The visit is in the framework of welcoming Pope Francis to the patriarchal territory, and not accompanying him on a trip," said father Abdo Abu Kasm, head of the Catholic Media Center. "The patriarch will not meet any Israeli official and rumours about attempts to normalize relations [with Israel] are merely part of media analyses and are inaccurate."

Rai himself has dismissed the criticism as "meaningless," saying: "I know my limits and I know that Lebanon considers Israel an enemy." Elsewhere, he noted that the Pope "is going to the diocese of the patriarch, so it's normal that the patriarch should welcome him."

Technically, Lebanon remains in a state of war against Israel, with tensions particularly high since the 2006 war that was sparked when Hezbollah kidnapped two IDF soldiers near the border. This "blue line," so called after the helmets of the 15,000 UN troops who patrol it, remains a frequent flashpoint. In addition to being Hezbollah's avowed raison d'être, resistance against Israel was also part of the Shiite militant group's justification for intervention in Syria.

There are no diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Israel, while former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora – who left office in 2009 – said Lebanon would be "the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel," citing the number of Lebanese citizens killed in the 2006 war – 1,191, according to Amnesty International.

The clergy of the Maronite church – which represents one of Lebanon's principal confessional groups and is in full communion with the Holy See – are the only individuals who are exempt from a law that prohibits Lebanese nationals from travelling to Israel, on the grounds that they require access the estimated 10,000 Maronites living in the Jewish state.

Politics and patriarchy

For all Rai's protestations, it is inevitable that his public actions and comments are received in a political light. In part, this is purely structural. The patriarch is often perceived as one arm of a Lebanese Maronite triumvirate that traditionally encompasses the presidency and the leadership of the army. But Rai also has a history of wading into political matters. His most recent public comments have dwelt on the looming risk of a power vacuum in the presidency, something on which he has put a fairly unpolemical (compared with many others) but spiritual spin, describing it as an "existential crisis."

More controversial were a series of 2011 comments, in which he argued in favour of Hezbollah's right to armed resistance against Israel, and warned of the prospect of a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood if protests in Syria resulted in the removal of President Bashar Assad. This situated him firmly on the side of the pro-Hezbollah and pro-Syria March 8 coalition – which welcomed his stance – and the opposing March 14 alliance, which decried it.

The move starkly differentiated Rai from his predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who had been outspoken in his criticism of Syria's tutelage over Lebanon, and had severed ties with Hezbollah. Sfeir also refused to visit Israel alongside Pope John Paul II on a Holy Land tour similar to Rai's upcoming visit.

Unbalanced neutrality

That Rai seems to have isolated his pastoral connections to Israel's Maronites from these pro-Hezbollah views might lead us to sympathise with his insistence on the political neutrality of his visit, in so far as the fulfillment of international religious responsibilities could transcend the national impasse of Lebanese confessional politics.

However, the patriarch's deputy has said that he does in fact plan to accept an invitation to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Whatever might be discussed at such a meeting, its mere existence would unbalance Rai's claim that politics does not feature on his itinerary.

Perhaps more damaging, it would fly in the face of Rai's own appeal last year for Lebanon to adopt a policy of "positive neutrality" in line with the Baabda Declaration that attempted (without success) to distance the country from the war in neighboring Syria.

Rai appears to want to have it both ways – in turns playing the part of a religious leader and political actor as though the two could be meaningfully distinguished from one another. His contradictory justification for the upcoming visit risks alienating existing and potential supporters at home and abroad, further deepening antagonism in Lebanon at a time when the only consensus is the need for unity.

Patrick Sykes is a Beirut-based journalist. He tweets under @Patrick_Sykes


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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