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Associated Press
Pope Francis, center, makes the sign of the cross at the holy water at the Bethany beyond the Jordan, which many believe is the traditional site of Jesus' baptism, in South Shuna, west of Amman, Jordan, Saturday, May 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

Lebanese cardinal makes rare Jerusalem visit

– The leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian denomination visited Jerusalem on Sunday, an official said, making him the first Lebanese religious leader to set foot in the city since Israel captured its traditionally Arab eastern sector in the 1967 Mideast war.

Cardinal Bechara Rai, head of the Maronite Catholic Church, came to Jerusalem as part of a group of senior clergy accompanying Pope Francis on a Holy Land pilgrimage, said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Lebanon and Israel are formally still at war, following a bloody history over decades.

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.

Lebanese media have blasted the cardinal’s plans to visit Jerusalem. On Sunday, the al-Akhbar newspaper wrote that “by coming here, he is forgiving the Zionists for the crimes they committed.”

However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came to the defense of the cardinal and publicly demonstrated his support Sunday. In biblical Bethlehem, Abbas awarded Rai a medal, the “Star of Jerusalem,” according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

Abbas told the cardinal he was being honored for his support of the Palestinian people “and in gratitude for his courage and visiting Jerusalem and breaking the siege and supporting the steadfastness of its people.”

Rai said he came to the Holy Land to pray for peace. “If there is a peaceful solution in Palestine, then this will give benefits to the entire world,” he said, according to WAFA. “We are with you (the Palestinians) and we defend your cause,” he added.