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A cardinal error? Maronite Patriarch of Antioch to meet the Pope in Israel

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An odd chap, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai. The Lebanese Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic church infuriated opponents of the Syrian regime by supporting Hezbollah's right to bear arms in Lebanon, and warning of an Islamist takeover of Syria if Bashar al-Assad is overthrown. As a result, on a visit to the United States, President Obama declined to meet the 71-year-old prelate, only months after the cardinal's 2011 election as patriarch.

And this weekend, the cardinal is off to Israel to see the Pope on his Holy Land tour, condemned by Hezbollah and castigated for his "historic sin" of visiting the land of Zionism. Lebanon is still technically at war with Israel, and never before has a Maronite patriarch visited the country. A cardinal error? A turbulent priest, for sure.

In many ways, Cardinal Rai is a typical Lebanese politician. While gazing benignly upon his Muslim fellow citizens, he must defend a Christian minority in Lebanon, which counts for an even smaller minority in the rest of the Arab world. This can be hard going. Justifying his visit to Israel, he proclaimed that he was "the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the east, of regions expanding from Turkey to Mauretania, Saudi Arabia to Iran. It is my duty to welcome the Pope in any country in these regions." Quite so.

But in Saudi Arabia, a country which does not even allow church services, let alone churches, Maronites don't cut much ice. And when Cardinal Rai was an auxiliary bishop in 1990, the Syrians bombarded Christian army units in east Beirut and killed many hundreds of Maronite civilians. President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, then controlled almost all of Lebanon.

At the time, Cardinal Rai would appear at remote churches in the Metn hills to rage against Syria's murderous policies. His predecessor, Nasrallah Sfeir, a saintly figure who in his nineties was accused by his opponents of being too old to remember the day of the week, bravely refused to visit Damascus.

Not so Cardinal Rai. Within weeks of being promoted he was off to Syria, and then explaining – in Paris, of all places – how revolution against Mr Assad's rule in Damascus might provoke the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. This was the remark which angered Mr Obama, although its prescience – despite Cardinal Rai's mis-identification of the Islamists of Syria – must now be acknowledged.

There are more than 50,000 Maronites in Syria, most of whom regard Mr Assad as a necessary (if not greatly loved) protector.

On the Israeli trip, Cardinal Rai will visit the West Bank and meet the "Palestinian President" (the inverted commas only bow to reality) Mahmoud Abbas. The Catholic church disputes Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem. "I am going there to say this is our city," the cardinal said. "I am going home, and I am going to see my people. We have been present in Haifa and Galilee long before Israel."

Fair enough. But he will also administer to Maronites who fought for Israel during the 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon, to men who in some cases have Lebanese blood on their hands – and who tortured their fellow Lebanese, most of whom were Muslims. These militiamen, who sought refuge in Israel in 2000, are still "wanted" in Beirut and are tried by military courts whenever they return.

In Lebanon, there are more than a million Maronites – more than three million worldwide. They trace their ancestry to Maroun, a 5th-century monk who lived on the Orontes river in what is now Syria. They moved into the cold valleys of the Mount Lebanon range and chose the Crusaders as allies – or rather, the Crusaders chose them.

The church which Cardinal Rai controls has not always tolerated those who break its rules. The historian Ussama Makdisi – nephew of Edward Said – has researched the story of a learned Maronite, Asad Shidyaq, who converted to Protestantism in the early 19th century – in an age when American Protestant missionaries represented a threat to the church – and was tortured and starved to death in a Maronite monastery.

However, there is a liberal side: Maronite priests can marry before ascending the hierarchy. And there are many Muslims who suspect that such democracy as Lebanon enjoys may not have existed without the country's Christians.

The cardinal therefore perches on a very rocky mountain. Ambitious, proud – often vain; but brave, too. Foolhardy? Anyone who visits Syria and Israel must ask himself that question. Like many Lebanese chiefs in the past, he may go down in his country's history as either a buffoon or a great leader. But if the clerics of the Middle East traditionally court martyrdom, the Lebanese must pray that Cardinal Rai does not acquire such a status for himself.