Jish, Israel – The residents of the mostly Maronite village of Jish, a few kilometres south of the Lebanese border, are preparing to host a visitor whose trip has been described variously as “a father’s long-overdue visit to his sons” as well as “a historic sin”.
The village in the northern Galilee, called Gush Halav in Hebrew, is home to perhaps one-third of the roughly 7,000 Maronites who live in Israel. All of them hail originally from Lebanon, where their faith emerged from a movement started in the fourth century by Saint Maroun on Mount Lebanon. Some arrived centuries ago; others within the past three decades.
Their church is still headquartered in Lebanon, a state with which Israel is technically at war. On Sunday, however, the head of that church, Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, will travel from Beirut to accompany Pope Francis on his tour of the Holy Land.
The last time a top Maronite cleric visited Jerusalem was in 1964, when the eastern half of the city was under Jordanian rule. Back then Lebanese Patriarch Boulos Meouchy joined Pope Paul VI on his pilgrimage.
Rai’s visit is controversial in Lebanon, where politicians and columnists describe it as an inappropriate act of normalisation. The Israeli government has largely avoided commenting on his visit, which they describe as “private” and not political.
But for the Maronites in Jish, cut off from their historic homes and viewed with suspicion on both sides of the border, the visit is long overdue.
“He faced a lot of pressure not to do this, from Hezbollah, from Arab regimes,” said Shadi Khalloul, a resident of Jish. “But we need him among us … it is his obligation to come to visit us, and be among us, at least once in 50 years.”
Khalloul has become something of a popular figure within the Israeli establishment: He served in the army as a paratrooper, encourages other Christians to enlist, and wants the Maronite community to view itself as separate from Israel’s Palestinian population.
On a recent Friday morning, he led a group of Jewish Israelis from a nearby kibbutz on a tour of Jish. Speaking to them in Hebrew, he described the Maronites as “Aramaic people, not Arabs”, and explained how Maronites helped settlers living in the yishuv, the early Jewish communities in Mandatory Palestine. Hundreds of students in Jish attend classes at an Aramaic school, believed to be the language spoken by Jesus.
I am going to my people, to my home in the Holy Land. It was there even before Israel was created.
A few kilometres behind him, visible on a hill, was the Lebanese border village of Maroun al-Ras.
“If we had peace between Israel and Lebanon, we would have better relations, open relations,” he said in an interview afterwards. “But because of the political situation we can’t be in touch with our Maronite brothers. They’re scared … that if they are in touch with us, in Israel, they will be seen as betrayers.”
Much of the suspicion stems from Israel’s 18-year occupation of Lebanon: Thousands of men, mostly Maronites, fought alongside the Israelis as members of a now-defunct militia called the South Lebanon Army. It was responsible for widespread human rights abuses throughout the occupation.
Some 6,500 fighters and their families fled to Israel when the Israelis left Lebanon in 2000, though over the years most of them returned home or emigrated to other countries.
Rai will meet some of those former fighters on his nearly weeklong visit. Archbishop Moussa al-Hage, the senior Maronite cleric in Israel, said last week that the patriarch will not talk with any Israeli officials. He will instead join the pope at religious sites in Jerusalem before visiting Maronites in the Galilee, Haifa and elsewhere.
“I am going to Jerusalem to say this is our city, an Arab city, and I have jurisdiction there,” Rai told journalists in Lebanon earlier this month. “I am going to my people, to my home in the Holy Land. It was there even before Israel was created.”
None of this has quelled the controversy in Lebanon. The newspaper As-Safir dubbed the visit a historical sin: “How will he act at the moment he descends from his plane in Jerusalem? Will the Maronite patriarch shake hands with those Israeli leaders gathered to receive Pope Francis in Jerusalem, or apologise to them?”
Officials from Hezbollah met with the patriarch earlier this month and “laid out what we see as the negative repercussions of this visit”, Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, a senior member of the group, told reporters.
At a press conference on Thursday, Israeli officials declined to comment on the patriarch’s itinerary, or even to use the word “Lebanon”.
“There is a delegation of 31 leaders of the Catholic Church who are coming from throughout the Middle East, including countries with which Israel is not at peace,” said Akiva Tor, an official at the foreign ministry. “Israel is open for all of them … but the visit is personal, and in accordance with their wishes, we would stress that it’s private and not political.”
While we respect religious duties, we do not believe that they should entail crossing the BDS picket line and offering Israel a fig leaf to cover up its regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid.
Even in the Palestinian territories, Rai’s trip has become the subject of controversy at a time of incessant internal debates over whether Arab visits to Jerusalem constituted acts of solidarity with Palestinians, or “normalisation” of ties with Israel.
This is the first visit of a Christian Arab cleric of this calibre since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994. Rai’s predecessor, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, did not accompany Pope John Paul II on his 2000 visit to Jerusalem, preferring only to join him on the Jordanian leg of his trip.
The late Pope Shenouda III of Egypt had also previously declined to visit Jerusalem while it remained under Israeli military rule. His successor, Pope Tawadros, said he would follow suit.
“While we respect religious duties, we do not believe that they should entail crossing the BDS picket line and offering Israel a fig leaf to cover up its regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid,” said Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
BDS is a movement of Palestinian political parties, trade unions and grassroots groups, which works on pressuring Israel to end its military rule of the territories it occupied in 1967, and grant equality to its Palestinian citizens.
A prominent Palestinian Christian activist movement expressed similar sentiments, saying that, while people here are eager to meet religious leaders, their preference is for those encounters to take place in “prayer of the spirits, and not in the presence of the Israeli occupation”.
“In this political environment, the cardinal’s trip may be seen as normalising ties [with Israel],” said Rifat Kassis, Kairos Palestine’s general coordinator. “Israel may exploit this trip to its benefit to [whitewash] the occupation.”
Kassis said the group isn’t discouraging Rai from visiting the Holy Land, but rather urging him to look at the visit’s ramifications “from a different angle”. “We are saying to him: Although you are coming here to pray with us, we cannot pray with you, because Jerusalem is closed to us.”
Other Christians, however, have labelled Rai’s visit an act of “steadfastness” that only serves to empower an increasingly dwindling and isolated Christian community.
“He’s coming on an official visit to his people,” said Michel Sabbah, the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. “Therefore we will receive him, we will welcome him, and we will pray with him.”
Criticism surrounding Rai’s trip had become so vocal, the issue had to be addressed by the Palestinian president last week. Mahmoud Abbas said the visit was a significant contribution to maintaining the “resilience and the Arab identity of Jerusalem and Palestine”.
“Your visit is not an act of normalisation of ties with Israel as some say,” Abbas said. “Those who call on people not to visit Jerusalem and Palestine while under occupation are merely resigning to the status quo.”