TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — The head of Lebanon's largest Christian denomination visited a parish in central 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 opposition at home. His critics have said the pilgrimage implies normalization with Israel at a time when the two countries remain formally at war. However, others said the Lebanese are preoccupied with different concerns, such as electing a president and containing the spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Rai said his journey, tied to a visit to the region by Pope Francis, celebrates the roots of Christianity in the region. In a veiled response to his critics, he said his motives were misunderstood.
"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, added that Rai's visit is purely religious. He said it is not linked to "the regrettable situation that exists between Lebanon and Israel."
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 bars 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.
About 11,000 Maronites live in Israel.
The cardinal is on a weeklong visit to the Holy Land. He spent the first two days in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, but on Monday ventured into Israel for the first time.
The cardinal began his day at a monastery west of Jerusalem. He was flanked by clergy and a scout troop that played musical instruments. Inside, Rai led a small group in prayers.
From there, he made his way to a Maronite parish in Jaffa, an ancient port that has been incorporated into Israel's second largest city, Tel Aviv. Police blocked off roads in front of the church to clear the path for his convoy. Inside the church, Rai blessed worshippers who reached out to touch him and take pictures of the cardinal with their phones.
Tel Aviv is the heart of secular Israel, somewhat removed from the daily friction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With its beachfront high-rises and pulsating nightlife, Tel Aviv also bears some resemblance to Beirut, the Lebanese capital some 200 kilometers (130 miles) to the north.
Later in the week, Rai plans to meet with parishioners in northern Israel and celebrate Mass for Lebanese Christians who fought alongside Israeli troops during Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.
The fighters of the South Lebanon Army and their families fled to Israel after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. In Lebanon, they are widely seen as traitors.
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."
However, the cardinal was embraced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who awarded him the "Star of Jerusalem" medal for visiting the city and strengthening its links to the Arab world.
Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, played down the impact of — and uproar over — the cardinal's visit.
"I don't think the visit in itself means a whole lot, neither for the Maronite community nor for the state of Israel," he said. "It wasn't a predominant event that overshadowed other things."
Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, and Ryan Lucas in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this report.