The most amazing story coming out of the Middle East this week is a report by Haaretz around two days ago about a massive undertaking by the Israeli Maronite and Christian populace to be able to come to Lebanon for pilgrimage, a country that is at war, and has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
The way these Israelis go at it is the following: they leave Israel and enter Jordan with their Israeli passports. In Jordan, they are issued Palestinian travel documents which they use to travel to Beirut. Those travel documents are then confiscated at our airport, and are only valid for a one week entry.
During that one week, the itinerary that the Israelis have includes: Mar Charbel in Annaya, Batroun’s convents, Harissa, Maghdouche, Baalbek, etc… as well as some Beirut mall, of course, which they are allowed to visit for a few hours only. They stay at facilities provided by the Maronite Church, are not permitted to leave their groups unattended, and the entire trip is planned from points A to Z in the utmost details in order to prevent any fallback from such measures in both countries.
In fact, they are not even allowed to talk to Lebanese people at the sites they are visiting for fear of someone recognizing where they’re from and tipping off authorities. They keep to themselves, spend a week here, and go back to their country reportedly very “appreciative” of the experience they got.
The Haaretz report (link) says that hundreds of Israeli Christians have been using that method to come to Lebanon for pilgrimage. I was intrigued as to why Israelis would want to come to Lebanon for Christian pilgrimage when they are literally living in the Holy Land. As it turns out, the majority of those coming into Lebanon are Maronites, who have bonds to the region being where the seat of Maronitisim and its main holy sites are.
The origin of such a pilgrimage trip reportedly goes back to 2014, which also happens to be the last time a high profile Maronite figure visited the Holy Land was when Patriach Bechara El Rai went there in 2014 when the Pope was also visiting. During that visit, the patriarch reportedly met with Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian authorities, in Ramallah and discussed with him issuing Palestinian travel documents to Israeli Arab Christians who wish to visit Lebanon for pilgrimage. As it turns out, Mahmoud Abbas obliged.
Since then, those trips have become increasingly less hidden, with authorities in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine deciding to turn a blind eye to these people going about their religious escapades in a country they’d normally not be able to visit. For $1800, the people wishing to visit Lebanon register their names with a yet unidentified priest in Galilee who then transmits that list to the Palestinian authorities for travel documents issuance.
Given that many Israeli Muslims are allowed to go to Saudi Arabia using Jordanian passports for Hajj, I don’t believe that such trips into Lebanon purely for religious purposes should cause any uproar. Even Al-Akhbar, known for their anti-Israeli crusades against anything that is touched by the Zionist state (as long as it’s not something they’re dependent on of course), was not entirely critical of the visits, labeling them under the guise of religion, rather than politics.
As it is though in the Middle East, everything is political.
Soon after the Haaretz report surfaced, Patriarch Rai announced that he believes Lebanese Christians should also be permitted to be able to visit the Holy Land and Jerusalem as part of religious pilgrimage. Rai believes that such visits would not fall under the much-dreaded normalization, but rather under religious auspices.
To that effect, during his much talked about visit to Saudi Arabia later in the month, he will discuss the logistics of how KSA, a country also with no diplomatic relations to Israel (yet), facilitates its own pilgrimage process of Israeli Muslims. As per the Haaretz article, Raï said “when I visited the Holy Land, I met with my community and had no political activity. And I don’t see anything wrong with this.”
Except while Patriarch Raï sees nothing wrong with such a move, a Lebanese population that rose up in arms about a movie with an Israeli actress will sure run towards the guillotines and shout treason and normalization at anyone who agrees with such a prospect.
Currently, a Lebanese citizen who wishes to visit the Holy Land cannot do so unless they are in the possession of a second nationality which permits visits to Israel, and even then that person would technically be breaking Lebanese law, although I wonder: how much emphasis can we put on laws whose application is as arbitrary as the Lebanese raison d’etre, only put into action when there’s enough political backbone for them to be applied, only enforced on those who don’t have IMDB pages to their names or enough clout to escape the judicial system?
I find the premise of religious causes outweighing political ones to be appealing, but this is the Middle East and not La La Land (that movie deserved the Oscar fyi). In a region as volatile and as precipitous, and between two countries that are constantly in conflict, whether actual or an undercurrent, should religious pilgrimage be allowed?
I’d like to say that if the Israelis are doing it, then we should do it as well. But while those Israeli Arabs have technical means with which they can access Lebanon (Palestinian documents, as they also happen to be Palestinian), Lebanese Christians only have their passport as their means for visitation. Such visits are, therefore, not technically feasible in the first place.
Add to the technical aspect of things all the treason threats that those who undertake such visits would get. It wasn’t a long time ago that people accused me of treason and sympathy with Israel because my name indicated I was Christian, solely due to me not wanting Wonder Woman to be banned. Even Al-Akhbar which was okay with the visits from Israel’s Arabs (apparently it considers them to be forcibly naturalized), the mere mention of such reciprocity had them be up in flames.
Such visits from Lebanon cannot be done in hiding – as their Israeli counterpart is happening. The Lebanese state has to sign off on them to begin with, and such a thing will never happen.
Until then, let those Israeli Arabs enjoy the many convents and spectacular views that Lebanon has to offer. By the looks of it, such visits will not be lasting long now.