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Cardinal is First Top Lebanese Cleric in Israel

The head of Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination visited a parish in Israel on Monday, becoming the first Lebanese religious leader to come to the Jewish state since its creation in 1948.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, a Maronite Catholic, made the trip despite criticism at home. His critics have said the pilgrimage implies normalization with Israel at a time when the two countries remain formally at war.

Rai said his journey, tied to a visit by Pope Francis, celebrates the roots of Christianity in the region. In a veiled response to his critics, he said he was misunderstood.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, center, visits a church in Jaffa, a mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, May 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

“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.

Archbishop Paul Sayah, a senior Maronite cleric, said Rai’s visit is purely religious and not linked to “the regrettable situation that exists between Lebanon and Israel.” According to the Roman Catholic Church, about 11,000 Maronites live in Israel.

Rai was cheered by several dozen faithful as he arrived at a Maronite parish in Jaffa, an ancient port that has been incorporated into Israel’s second largest city, Tel Aviv. He also visited a monastery west of Jerusalem.

Rai’s visit overlapped with a Holy Land pilgrimage on Sunday and Monday by Francis. Rai accompanied the pope during his tour of biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank on Sunday, but followed a separate program on Monday when the pontiff’s itinerary included meetings with Israeli leaders.

Lebanese media have portrayed Rai’s visit to Israel as a “historic sin.”

Israel and Lebanon have a bloody history. Israel has invaded Lebanon several times, occupying part of the neighboring country’s territory for 18 years until it withdrew in 2000. In 2006, a 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead.

Lebanon bans its citizens from visiting Israel or having business dealings with Israelis. However, Maronite clergy are exempt from the ban to enable them to stay in touch with the faithful in the Holy Land.

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