BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement told the head of the Maronite church on Friday that his planned trip to Jerusalem to accompany Pope Francis would have “negative repercussions”.
Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai has said he will join the pope on his May 24-26 tour of the Holy Land, drawing criticism in Lebanon which remains in a formal state of war with its southern neighbor Israel.
Rai, a Catholic Cardinal, is the leading official in the Maronite church, which follows an Eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Maronites number about 900,000 in Lebanon, around a quarter of the population, and also have a presence in other countries in the region.
“We presented our point of view ... about the negative repercussions of this visit,” Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, head of Hezbollah’s political council, told reporters after meeting Rai at the patriarch’s offices in the hills overlooking Beirut.
“We hope that these considerations are taken into account.”
Israeli forces have invaded Lebanon several times since the Jewish state was formed in 1948, sending waves of Palestinians into exile in neighboring countries.
Some Lebanese Christians allied themselves with Israel in the past. Most of the personnel in the now-defunct South Lebanon Army (SLA), which helped Israeli occupation forces battle Hezbollah until they withdrew in 2000, were Maronites.
Around 10,000 Maronites live in Israel, including 2,000 former SLA men and their families who fled there during the Lebanon withdrawal. Members of the community planned to meet Rai during his visit, Israel’s Army Radio reported.
Hezbollah fought an inconclusive war with Israel in 2006. Since then, border tensions sometimes flare into shelling or shooting.
In the 1967 Middle East war, Israel seized Arab East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, annexed the eastern part of the city in a move not recognized internationally and declared the city its “eternal and indivisible capital”.
Rai has defended his planned visit, saying it is his duty to receive the pope if he comes to the region. “I‘m going to Jerusalem to say this is our city, and Jerusalem is Arab,” he told reporters last week.
Reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams