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In first Holy Land pilgrimage, Lebanese patriarch visits 2 disparate Maronite flocks in Israel

Published May 28, 2014  Associated Press

(Article retrieved from foxnews on May 28, 2014)

(Photo retrieved from annahar on May 29, 2014)

KUFR BIRIM, Israel –  The head of Lebanon's largest Christian group, the Maronite Catholics, has begun a politically charged tour of the remains of an Arab village destroyed by Israeli forces half a century ago.

Cardinal Bechara Rai led a religious procession on Wednesday through the ruins of Kufr Birim, a Maronite village near the Lebanese border. Israel razed Kufr Birim in 1953, five years after persuading hundreds of residents to leave by promising a speedy return that never materialized.

The villagers' descendants continue their struggle to return. They say they hope the cardinal can help.

Rai is on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He is the first Lebanese religious leader to visit Israel despite the formal state of war between the two countries and has faced criticism at home over the trip.


Lebanese Christian leader gives hope to displaced Arab villagers in Israel

Patriarch Bechara Rai celebrates Mass in Bir’im, a Christian village uprooted in 1951, and with former SLA soldiers.

By Jack Khoury and The Associated Press | May 28, 2014 

The Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, who is currently on a precedent-setting visit to Israel as a member of Pope Francis’ delegation, met with two very different groups of Christians in northern Israel on Wednesday.

The patriarch, the first Lebanese religious leader to visit Israel despite the formal state of war between the two countries, stayed on in the country after the pope’s departure to meet with Maronite communities in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jaffa and the Galilee.

On Wednesday morning, he celebrated mass on the site of the village of Kafr Bir’im, which was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1953, five years after the villagers left with the promise of a speedy return – which never happened. Hundreds of displaced villagers and their children attended the mass.

In an address to the crowd, the patriarch said that the presence of so many people from the younger generation made it clear that the refugees had not forgotten – and would not forget – their village. “You are the new saplings from which the return will grow,” he said.

He mentioned the weekly pilgrimages that the villagers make to the site, saying, “your presence is very important and your hopes for return will be answered.” He added that he would send a personal message to the Vatican regarding Israel’s failure to live up to its commitment, including its disregard of a Supreme Court decision for the past 64 years.

Kamal Yaqoub, a member of the council representing the displaced people of Bir’im, said that the visit represented a strong show of support for their struggle of 60-plus years.

The patriarch also visited the church in the village of Ikrit and the ruins of al-Mansoura, both Christian villages that were uprooted in 1948.

Later on Wednesday, he was due to celebrate Mass on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with former soldiers from the South Lebanese Army, a Lebanese militia that fought alongside Israel, and their families, The mainly Christian SLA veterans have been in Israel since the withdrawal from Lebanon 14 years ago.

The patriarch’s meeting with the former SLA soldiers, like the visit to Israel itself, has drawn significant criticism in Lebanon and the Arab media. The patriarch has stressed that his visit is religious and spiritual and does not constitute recognition of Israel.

The former SLA soldiers and their families were expected to ask the patriarch to intervene on their behalf with the Lebanese authorities, in order to halt what they say is the persecution of them and to work for the granting of clemency for those who want to return to Lebanon.

The patriarch’s visit "gives us hope that someone didn't forget us ... and someone is fighting for us, that they want us to come back home," said Vivian Shadid, 25, whose father was an SLA officer.

The patriarch said he intended dealing with all the issues that had been raised during his visit via the Vatican and members of the international community that have relations with Israel. "The only way is through the Vatican because we cannot deal with the state," he said, referring to Israel. 


Maronite patriarch vows to help displaced 

Kufr Bir'im (Israel) (AFP) - The Lebanese patriarch of the Maronite church vowed Wednesday to help the displaced Christians of a village in northern Israel, as he pushed forward with a controversial trip to the Jewish state.

In 1948, six months after Israel was established, the army asked Iqrit and Kufr Bir'im's residents to leave their homes for two weeks because of military operations in the area.

But they were never allowed to go back. The army razed most of Iqrit in 1951 and did the same to Kufr Bir'im two years later.

"We are with you and we will help you however we can," Beshara Rai told exiled villagers of Kufr Bir'im, near the Lebanese border, who now live in nearby towns and cities.

"We will work through the Vatican and lobby the pope until the world hears your case," he said, two days after Pope Francis wound up a historic visit to the Holy Land.

In a letter to the pontiff, the people of Kufr Bir'im and Iqrit, all of them Catholics, begged Francis to "intensify" efforts to pressure Israel to end the injustice inflicted upon their community.

Rai's visit, timed to coincide with that of the pope, was condemned by media close to Lebanon's Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, which said travelling to arch-enemy Israel would be a "sin."

The trip is diplomatically noteworthy because Lebanon remains technically at war with Israel and bans its citizens from entering the Jewish state.

But Maronite clergy are permitted to travel to Israel to minister to the estimated 10,000 faithful there.Arab Israelis


In rare Israel visit, Lebanese church head hears exiled Christians


(retrieved from the star)


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".


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.

"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 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.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)