On January 1st Vatican announced the death of former Greek Catholic vicar of Jerusalem and political prisoner, monsignor Hilarion Capucci at the age of 94. He had apparently died earlier that day.
The current Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East Gregory III Laham(2000-) has called Capucci “a hero of the Palestinian cause” after news of his death.
Hilarion Capucci was born in Syria’s Aleppo on March 2nd in 1922 as France was violently taking over the country, after dividing the Middle East with Great Britain in Sykes-Picot Agreement(1916) and the Treaty of San Remo(1920).
In the terminology of Israel’s regime, France was creating ‘facts on the ground’ after first creating them on the map. His birth and death thus mark two pivotal moments in the history of Syria – as battlefield both for foreign ambitions and internal strife.
Capucci was born in an Melkite – Greek Catholic Church – family. The Melkites are Arabic speakers who recognize the primacy of the papacy of Rome but who follow the Eastern Rite. They left the Greek Orthodox Church after a schism in the 1720s.
After entering the holy orders in 1947 and first working in Damascus, Syria, he became the representative of the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East as an Patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem July 30th 1965 and was ordained as titular Archbishop of Caesarea September 5th on the same year. (Titular meaning that except for officially diocese the had ceased to exist and the title was a honorary one without duties.)
SUPPORTER OF PALESTINIAN CAUSE
At this time he became an active and vocal supporter of the Palestinian re-invigorated Palestinian resistance, and a life-long friend of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose widow Suha remembered him with these words:
“His cross was also his sword – he never carried a weapon in his life. He was a great man and lived by his convictions despite the tremendous amount of psychological and physical pressure that he was subjected to by the Israelis. President Arafat loved him dearly and so did I, ever since I first met him in Nablus when I was a child.”
He was recalled as saying that:
““Jesus Christ was the first resistance fighter. I am just following his example.”
ARREST BY ISRAEL
In 1974 Israel arrested him, accusing him of transporting arms for Palestinian resistance fighters in his car with had diplomatic plates. He denied this then, but apparently the accusation was true and he was supported by the then Melkite Patriarch Maximos V Hakim(1967-2000), who said that:
“If we go back in history we find other bishops who smuggled weapons, gave their lives and committed other illegal actions to save Jews from Nazi occupation. I do not see why a man who is ready to save Arabs should be condemned.”
After his arrest he resigned his vicariate, but held the title of Patriarchal Vicar Emeritus until his death.
After a high profile trial he was convicted in 1976 by an Israeli military court to 12 years in prison.
Capucci was among the political prisoners whose liberation was sought in many of the episodes of hostage taking by resistance fighters in the mid-seventies, including in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976 which ended with the death of 69 or 70 people, most of them native Ugandans, when Israel attacked the airfield where the plane was.
He was finally released in 1978 after personal plea from pope Paul V(1963-78), going to play a constructive role in the Iran hostage crisis and repatriation of the remains of eight US soldiers whose helicopter crashed during an attempted rescue.
ACTIVE TO OLD AGE
After helping to release 68 Italian ‘human shields’ from Iraq before the start of the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, he remained active through to extreme old age.
He was re-captured by Israel during the 2009 and 2010 Freedom Flotillas, the latter which was attacked by Israel on international waters with the death of ten activists. Even UN report deliberately staffed with pro-Israel personnel had to condemn the attack and killings as unlawful.
He was again briefly imprisoned in a prison in Beersheba before being deported as a result, these being the only visits to Palestine he was able to make after being deported by Israel in 1978.
The greatest controversy in his old age was connected to his stance on the Syrian civil war, in which he supported the government, seeing the war as a foreign plot against Syria although many had wanted him to take a different position.
In this he seems to have reflected the majority of view of his native Melkite community in Syria and the stance of its local religious leaders, who, although critical of the government, see the rebel forces as a threat to their community.
In June 2016 he released an open letter in support of Palestinian political prisoners on hunger-strike:
“I salute the steadfastness of all Palestinian prisoners who defend the Palestinian people’s right to live in peace without occupation and suffering. My salutation to all prisoners on hunger strike who fight their torturers and oppressors for freedom, dignity and humanity.”
He went on to calling for support for them and the Palestinian cause, hoping to be able to soon return to Jerusalem. This hope was never fulfilled, but his memory and spirit live on in the hearts and minds of people who share his commitment and love for Palestine and the Palestinians.
Still as late as December 15th 2016 he was able to visit and meet people in Palestine’s embassy in Rome.