The head of Lebanon's largest Christian group, the Maronite Catholics, has begun a politically charged tour of the remains of an Arab village destroyed by Israeli forces half a century ago.

Cardinal Bechara Rai led a religious procession on Wednesday through the ruins of Kufr Birim, a Maronite village near the Lebanese border. Israel razed Kufr Birim in 1953, five years after persuading hundreds of residents to leave by promising a speedy return that never materialized.

The villagers' descendants continue their struggle to return. They say they hope the cardinal can help.

Rai is on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He is the first Lebanese religious leader to visit Israel despite the formal state of war between the two countries and has faced criticism at home over the trip.