KUFR BIRIM Israel (Reuters) - A Lebanese church leader who defied warnings from the powerful Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah movement by accompanying the Pope on a Holy Land visit pledged on Wednesday to help dispossessed Christians in Israel.
Two Catholic communities in Israel are seeking Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai's intervention: Arabs expelled from their Galilee village by Israeli forces during the 1948 war of Israel's founding and former members of a pro-Israeli Lebanese militia now living in the Jewish state.
Israel and Lebanon are in a formal state of war, and Hezbollah had warned Rai of "negative repercussions" if he went ahead with his planned trip. The patriarch remained in Israel after Pope Francis's pilgrimage ended on Monday.
Having visiting Tel Aviv's mainly Arab district of Jaffa on Monday, Rai continued on Wednesday to Birim, a northern village whose Maronite Christian residents were displaced 66 years ago.
Israel razed the village in 1953, sparing only its church and bell tower, and many of its former residents and their descendants now live in other communities in the Galilee.
Birim villagers, who numbered more than 800 in 1948, and their descendants have campaigned to be allowed to return and rebuild, winning an Israeli high court ruling that has yet to be implemented by the state. Rai said his church would lobby on their behalf through the Vatican.
"We are with you, and want to help you as much as possible," he said in a speech to an audience of several hundred, adding that he could not appeal to Israel as it is "an enemy country".
FEAR OF RETURN
Rai was also due later on Wednesday to meet other Maronites in northern Israel, including members of the South Lebanon Army, a militia that was allied with Israel during its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.
Former SLA troops, who make up about a fifth of the 10,000-strong Maronite community in Israel, fled south across the Lebanese border when Israeli forces withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000.
Branded as traitors in Lebanon, the ex-SLA men and their relatives fear to return and want Rai to intercede on their behalf in Beirut.
"This is the first time that a senior Lebanese figure has come (to Israel), and he wants to listen to us," Julie Abu a-Raj, a spokeswoman for the ex-SLA community, told Israel Radio.
She commended Rai for "making good on his religious duty to visit his flock and not succumbing to threats" - a reference to the disapproval of Hezbollah, an Iranian- and Syrian-backed Muslim militia which fought Israel and the SLA. [ID:nL6N0O23T7]
"We are an exiled community that was a political, historical and geographic victim of the wars of others in our country," Abu a-Raj said.
"We want to tell the Lebanese government...to stop the trials and investigations against us, the only ones who are loyal to our identities."
Maronites follow an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic church. They number about 900,000 in Lebanon, a quarter of the population.