May 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lebanese patriarch comforts exiles

Return of militiamen, their families still a distant possibility

An Arab Israeli follower of the Maronite community kisses the hand of Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai during his visit. (Menahem Kahana / Getty Images)

Capernaum, Israel

The leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic church celebrated an outdoor Mass this week for hundreds of exiled countrymen who are considered traitors by many back home for helping Israel maintain an 18-year occupation of south Lebanon.

Cardinal Bechara Rai had soothing words for the former Lebanese militiamen and their families, who fled their country in 2000, many with just the clothes on their backs, as their Israeli allies withdrew from Lebanon.

“Innocence paid the price and you are paying the price because of an international and regional game,” he said on Wednesday, standing behind the altar at sunset, with the biblical Sea of Galilee as a dramatic backdrop.

He assured the exiles he was trying to help, adding: “We are following up your suffering with the respective authorities in Lebanon.”

Some of the faithful said they hope the cardinal’s unprecedented pilgrimage to Israel — the first Lebanese religious leader to do so — is a signal they may be able to return home someday.

“We are very grateful,” said Vivian Shadid, 25. “We are full of hope that someone is fighting for us, that someone wants us.”

For others, return remains a distant possibility.

The young already speak better Hebrew than Arabic, while some older exiles, especially those who held senior positions in the former South Lebanon Army militia, would face imprisonment if they returned.

Victor Nader, a 55-year-old former senior SLA commander, said that “until lots of things change in Lebanon, I wouldn’t think about going back.”

Israel invaded Lebanon repeatedly, including in 1982 in an offensive that initially was meant to drive PLO fighters from southern Lebanon. The war turned into a drawn-out military occupation of parts of the south, where Israel carved out a “security zone” meant to serve as a buffer against cross-border attacks by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

During those years, the South Lebanon Army militia fought alongside Israeli troops against the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, today the strongest force in Lebanon.

About 3,500 former SLA men and their families still live in Israel, Shadid said.

The Mass at Capernaum, site of a biblical fishing village, was a highlight of Rai’s weeklong visit to the Holy Land, which began Sunday in biblical Bethlehem and at times overlapped with a pilgrimage by Pope Francis.