His Beatitude Beshara Rai: The Maronite Pastor in the Holy Land

Following the Holy Father’s surprise visit to Saint Saviour Monastery, it was His Beatitude Beshara Rai, the first Lebanese religious dignitary to visit the Holy Land since the creation of the State of Israel, who visited on Tuesday, May 27.

The historic visit was not without controversy, with several political factions accusing the patriarch of visiting “enemy” territory. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Lebanon are all but dead, despite the armistice signed in 1949. However, the Maronite Church has two administrative entities in the territory of the Holy Land: the Eparchy of Haifa and the Holy Land together with the Patriarchal Exarchate of Jerusalem, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories together count some 10,000 faithful. His Beatitude, therefore, took it upon himself to be among those welcoming the Holy Father and profited from the occasion to continue his stay and make a broader pastoral visit in the Holy Land.

His Beatitude, therefore, scheduled over a week to his faithful in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Nazareth. The Maronites are not alone in rejoicing at his arrival; many Christian Arabs have joined them, including the Custody of the Holy Land. The warm welcome that His Beatitude received at Saint Saviour as well as at the Maronite Patriarchate in Jerusalem bore witness to this.

The enthusiasm is real, explains Fra Feras parish priest of Jerusalem. “Christians know him well because for years he has preached on live broadcasts on the Noursat TV network in the Middle East.” Fra Najib, the Lebanese superior of the Flagellation Monastery, emphasizes that the Lebanese Patriarch is “a national figure and a true Christian spiritual authority” in the Middle East.

The Custos did not hesitate to stress this role in his welcoming address. “The relationship between the Maronites and the Franciscans are of long date and go deep; your presence perpetuates it. But even beyond continuity, your visit enriches the message of the Holy Land. With your presence today we draw closer to our mission and dream of Christian unity.”

His Beatitude appreciated these words when he took the floor, speaking in Italian: “Our visit to the Custody of the Holy Land today is a Te Deum. We come to thank you for your presence for the esteem that you have in the eyes of the Christians you support here.” With conviction, he added, “We resist. We have so many churches, so many Christians. We must never stop telling the world that this land bears the mark of Christians. Blessed are you to be in this Land where we cannot easily set foot.”

His Beatitude did not stop with the official remarks. He went to the infirmary to meet the oldest Franciscans. With great tenderness, he blessed each friar, recited the Our Father with them, and took time for a chat, also greeting infirmary personnel, posed for photos…

This patriarchal visit was a sign of encouragement for the Maronites of the Holy Land, as well as for the many Lebanese who aspire to peace in the Middle East. As the Lebanese journalist Bissane Al-Sheikh wrote in the pan-Arabic daily Al Hayat on May 23rd, “This visit opens a chink in our spirits as well as in the wall against normalization with Israel that we have been building for decades and strengthened with reinforced concrete. This wall has distanced us from Palestine and its people even more than the wall of separation that Israel built. May His Beatitude claim for us who love Jerusalem the same privilege of being able to visit that city that millions of us would love to see.”

After stops in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Jerusalem, the Patriarch will continue his stay until May 31st, visiting the major Maronite centers in Israel: Akko, Jish, Nazareth, Issifya and Haifa.

On May 28th he will celebrate the liturgy at Capernaum, guest of the Franciscans who protect the site. The celebration will be broadcast live on Noursat TV, thanks to technical assistance of the Franciscan Media Center.

Earlier in the day he went to Kfar Biriim, whose population was displaced in 1948 and has not yet been able to return to land of their ancestors.

He will complete his pastoral visit in Haifa, where the large Maronite community will join him in a grand procession in the late afternoon of May 30th.

Emilie R.

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