Archbishop was “Icon of Resistance” to Palestinians

Tributes pour in after the death of Greek Melkite archbishop Hilarion Capucci, 94, who fought for Palestinian rights

A Greek Melkite archbishop, described as an “icon” of the Palestinian liberation struggle, has died in Rome at the age of 94.

Hilarion Capucci, who was appointed the Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem in 1965, was arrested by Israel nine years later and jailed for arms smuggling.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was among those praising him for “defending the rights of the Palestinian people”.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said Capucci was a reminder of an era when priests were actively engaged in political struggles, from opposition to the Vietnam war to leading liberation movements in Latin America.

“He embodied the activist church – spiritual leaders who were prepared to translate their principles into action and struggle against injustice. He became an icon to Palestinians,” she told Al Jazeera.

“The days of revolutionary priests are over,” she added. “The church is no longer deeply immersed in active struggle. It is more hesitant and cautious. Today, priests are more likely to express their solidarity by being witnesses or advocates.”

Arms smuggling trial

Born in 1922, in the Syrian city of Aleppo, at the time under French colonial rule, Capucci played a prominent role in several conflicts in the Middle East. The Palestinian struggle, however, appeared to be especially close to his heart.

Deeply influenced by liberation theology, Capucci lectured and wrote about the Palestinian cause and human rights abuses during the 1960s, and soon struck up a close friendship with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. On several occasions, Capucci compared Jesus to Palestinian resistance fighters.

But he came to wider public attention in August 1974, when Israel arrested him as he drove between the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and occupied East Jerusalem in a car with Vatican diplomatic licence plates. Soldiers searching his Mercedes found rifles, pistols, ammunition and explosives.

Israel also accused him of being involved in a failed plot a few months earlier to fire three Katyusha rockets towards Jerusalem during a visit by Henry Kissinger, then the United States secretary of state.

Labelled a “terrorist priest” by the Israeli media, Capucci was charged with contact with foreign agents and transporting illegal weapons – the most serious charges ever laid by Israel against a senior cleric.

Hunger strikes

The Greek Melkite patriarch of the time, Maximos V, compared Capucci’s role to that of priests who three decades earlier had risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi occupation of Europe.

Capucci refused to take the stand, insisting that the Israeli military court was not competent to try him. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail. He went on several hunger strikes, and under pressure from Pope Paul VI, Israel commuted his sentence in 1978.

Palestinians had demanded Capucci’s release in several guerilla operations of that period, including following the hijacking of an Air France plane in 1976.

Reportedly, as part of the terms of Capucci’s release from prison, Israel insisted that he not be reassigned to the Middle East. The Vatican sent him first to Latin America and then to Europe.

Nonetheless, he continued his activism in the region, including by attending a meeting of the PLO in Damascus in 1979.

He also sought to negotiate the release of US embassy staff taken hostage during the Iranian revolution of 1979, and visited Baghdad in 1990 to protest western sanctions against Iraq, which were widely blamed for causing the deaths of more than half a million Iraqi children.

Medal of honour

In a sign of how the Palestinian cause continued to motivate him, Capucci twice joined aid flotillas seeking to break Israel’s siege of Gaza, despite being in his late eighties.

In 2010, he was among those on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara ship when it was attacked by Israeli commandos in international waters. Nine of the activists on board were killed. He was arrested and briefly jailed in Beersheva prison, the first time he had set foot in Israel in 32 years.

In an interview with Al Jazeera shortly afterwards, he said he had participated “to meet the tortured, persecuted and wronged kinfolk in the [Gaza] Strip to assure them that we are with them morally and spiritually”.

In 2013, Abbas awarded Capucci a medal of honour in a ceremony in Rome for his long-time support for the Palestinian people.

In a statement this week, Hamas leader Ezzat al-Rashq praised Cappucci for his “bold attitudes” and a “legacy [that] will stand as an example to all of us to persist in our pursuit of liberty and freedom.”

Debate about resistance

Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian who met Capucci on several occasions, called him “a man of his time”.

Over the course of his life, Capucci’s attitude towards struggle, said Pappe, had changed in ways that mirrored the evolution of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

“His story connects very much to the question of how to liberate Palestine,” Pappe told Al Jazeera.

“The debate has been about whether Palestinians should adopt the model of the FLN in Algeria, who waged guerrilla war to drive out the French, or adopt the later stages of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid in South Africa, when it focused more on mobilising civil society, diplomacy and boycotts than armed struggle.”

Pappe noted that armed struggle had been viewed as “honourable” among many Palestinians back in the 1960s and 70s. “His participation in the Mavi Marmara showed that he was ready – much like the Palestinians – to adapt to new ways of resistance,” he added.

Tears for Jerusalem

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian government minister, said Capucci would be remembered positively by Palestinians, and expected that ways would be found by the leadership to commemorate him.

He added: “Although there is little organised armed struggle among Palestinians at the moment, polls show a sizeable proportion of the population still favour it as the best approach to resisting Israeli occupation.”

Riah Abu el-Assal, the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, said he had walked alongside Capucci at Arafat’s funeral in Cairo in 2004 and met him again last year at the Vatican.

“He spoke with tears in his eyes about how much he missed Jerusalem, its Old City alleys and the people there,” Abu el-Assal told Al Jazeera. “He longed to go back, but was barred from returning by Israel.”

Postage stamps in Capucci’s honour have been issued by Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Sudan.

Regional mediator

The cleric’s credibility in the Middle East was such that he was able to mediate in several high-profile diplomatic confrontations.

He nearly secured an agreement to release the 52 American embassy staff held hostage in Tehran, following the Iranian revolution of 1979, but media leaks scuppered the deal.

In 1980, however, he successfully negotiated with Iran the release of the bodies of eight US airmen, who died during a failed mission to rescue the hostages.

He travelled to Baghdad in 1990, to persuade Saddam Hussein to free 68 Italians who had been prevented from leaving, along with hundreds of other westerners, after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

He returned a decade later with a delegation of clerics and intellectuals to protest western sanctions against Iraq. He told reporters that two Middle East nations were suffering: “The Iraqis, because of sanctions, and the Palestinian people, who are fighting for their dignity.”

There are about 80,000 Greek Melkites in Israel and the occupied territories, constituting about half of the Palestinian Christian population in the area.

According to reports, Capucci is due to be buried in Lebanon on Thursday.

• First published in Al Jazeera

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books).

Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.