A Hezbollah member of Lebanon’s parliament is criticizing Lebanon’s top Christian cleric after the religious leader visited Israel last week where he traveled with Pope Francis, prayed with local Christians and met with fighters from the now defunct South Lebanese Army (SLA) who fled to Israel more than a decade ago.
Member of Parliament Ali Meqdad on Saturday addressed Maronite Catholic Cardinal Beshara Rai’s meeting with the former Lebanese fighters, saying, “We do not want agents among us.”
The negative words followed a warning last month issued by Hezbollah that the cardinal’s visit to Jerusalem would have “negative repercussions.” Hezbollah-linked media portrayed his visit as a “historic sin.”
Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star news site quoted Meqdad who said, “There is an issue that really irked me. Some people went to occupied Palestine to convince [Israeli] agents who withdrew with the Israeli enemy in 2000 to come back to Lebanon, and their response was that they have become Israeli citizens now and do not want either the Lebanese or Arab identity.”
“We do not want Israeli agents among us here in Lebanon,” Meqdad said, speaking about the predominantly Christian SLA fighters who worked alongside Israel during the 18 years it occupied south Lebanon before 2000. After Israel’s withdrawal, some 2,000 former fighters including their families crossed the border into Israel out of fear of Hezbollah retribution against them.
Before Rai’s visit, the head of Hezbollah’s political council met with the Christian leader to convey the militant group’s view about his planned trip.
“We presented our point of view … about the negative repercussions of this visit,” Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed said in mid-May.
Lebanon prohibits its citizens from visiting Israel; however, Maronite clergy are exempted from the travel ban.
According to the Associated Press, Rai’s visit to Israel was the first by a Lebanese religious leader since Israel was created in 1948.
Despite the criticism at home, Rai said his visit aimed to celebrate the roots of Christianity in the region.
“With all the difficulties that you heard about, with all the explanations that are not related to our visit, with all the understandings that have nothing to do with our thoughts, we came here for the goal of strengthening our belief,” he said last week.
Last month, Rai said that it was his duty to receive the pope and to emphasize the Arab nature of Jerusalem.
“I’m going to Jerusalem to say this is our city, and Jerusalem is Arab,” the cardinal told reporters.
Senior Maronite cleric Archbishop Paul Sayah emphasized the religious nature of Rai’s travels, telling the AP that it was not connected to “the regrettable situation that exists between Lebanon and Israel.”
While in Israel, the cardinal blessed worshippers in Jerusalem and celebrated Mass in northern Israel.
Despite the negative feedback at home, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas awarded the cardinal the “Star of Jerusalem” medal for visiting Jerusalem and emphasizing its links to the Arab world, the AP reported.
According to Reuters, Maronite Christians make up about a quarter of the Lebanese population and number 900,000.