An indomitable fighter for the Palestinian cause, Monsignor Hilarion Capucci died in Rome on 1st January this year. A Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem/Al Quds, Capucci belonged to the Greek-Melkite rite. Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1922, this extraordinary prelate’s name will be forever linked to the ongoing struggle of the people of Palestine – and indeed all the peoples of the Middle East – for self-determination, justice and peace.
The Melkite Church goes back to ancient Byzantium. Melkite Christians were loyal to the Byzantine monarch, ‘malkaya’ meaning ‘royal or imperial’ in the Syriac language. In their sacred liturgies, they follow the Eastern, Byzantine rite. Today there are Melkite people scattered throughout the world, in both the Orthodox and the Catholic camps. However, those in communion with Rome, like Capucci, are mostly in Syria and Lebanon. They number about 400.000.
Ordained priest in 1947, Capucci rose first to the rank of bishop and then of the archbishop of his Christian, Arab-speaking community until in August 1974 the Israelis arrested him on the charge of arms smuggling. The police claimed to have discovered in his Mercedes car, which enjoyed diplomatic status, guns, grenades and other explosives meant for the Palestinian resistance. Actually, Capucci declared his innocence – it was an Israeli plot, he protested and went on several hunger strikes. Regardless, the Israeli authorities sentenced him to twelve years in prison. He was held cruelly in a very small cell, as well as, it seems, being tortured. Later, Palestinian freedom-fighters carried out spectacular public actions, demanding the prisoner’s release.
The episode caused a great scandal because of Capucci’s high priestly rank and position. He spent four years in jail until Vatican pressure succeeded in having him released. Pope Paul VI had to assure the Israelis that Capucci would go to a monastery in South America and never again reside in the Middle East. The Archbishop was grateful to the Holy Father but, after a short interlude, he soon turned up in Damascus, taking part in a gathering of top PLO officials. Yasser Arafat, the iconic PLO leader, acknowledged him as a personal friend and common fighter for Palestinian freedom. (Like Arafat, the Archbishop showed up sometimes at demonstrations wearing the famous trademark keffiyeh, or Arab headscarf.) Later Capucci also visited Tehran, to lend his support to the revolution that toppled the Shah’s tyrannical regime.
Old age did not in any way diminish this turbulent priest’s commitment to humanitarian actions and protests. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, some foreigners were held as hostages in Iraq, to be used as ‘human shields’, against an impending Western onslaught. Capucci then travelled to Baghdad to secure their release and was able to escort a number of Italians safely out of the country. ‘Iraqis and Palestinians suffer in this war’, he said. ‘The sanctions are hurting both the ordinary citizens of Iraq and the Palestinians, a people who are seeking their freedom’.
In 2010, at the age of 88, the brave cleric embarked on the ship Navi Marmara, part of a flotilla carrying aid, food and medicine for the people of Gaza, ruthlessly blockaded by the Israelis. A photo showed him reading the Bible under the Palestinian flag. Truly iconic. Capucci’s favourite fighting weapon was the Word of God. Israelis troops boarded the ship, nine innocent people were shot and others injured. Capucci was arrested and imprisoned again in Israel before being deported. ‘The Cross is my defence’, is said defiantly while captive.
The heroic Archbishop never gave up hope for his battle’s final victory. He would often take his leave from visitors, saying: ‘Till we meet again in Jerusalem, the capital of a free Palestine’. Pope John Paul II had lobbied the Israeli government so that the priest could be allowed to see once again his beloved Jerusalem/al-Quds, but to no effect, alas. Whereupon the man of God commented with equanimity: ‘The Zionists will not be able to exclude me from the Heavenly Jerusalem. God is the only authority to have jurisdiction there!’
In 2013 the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, bestowed on the Archbishop a medal of honour, Palestine’s highest decoration, Even Hamas, the more radical branch of the Palestinian movement ruling Gaza, hailed him as a great Arab revolutionary and as a stalwart friend and champion of the just cause of Palestine. Hezbollah, the Shi‘a Lebanese political and militant group, also offered condolences to Hilarion Capucci’s family, saying that the entire Arab nation had lost a great combatant for freedom. In a statement, Hezbollah said that the deceased ‘had always worked to liberate the holy places, obliterate the Zionist occupation, unite the Umma’s efforts and supported the resistance wholeheartedly.’
As Syrian-born, Hilarion Capucci took a keen interest in his country’s current plight. He was convinced of the existence of a conspiracy to undermine Syria’s integrity and create a new, divided and divisive Middle East. On the whole, he gave his backing to the Damascus government. He fingered the US and Israel as part of the plot, to grab oil resources and to weaken whatever resistance to imperialist hegemony the people of Palestine and his allies could offer. Conspiracy or not, the civil war, the tragedy unfolding in Syria and the attendant humanitarian catastrophe are such that no Christian leader worth his salt could ever fail to feel indignant about.Monsignor Capucci’s personal witness to the cause of Palestine has won him high standing in the Arab and Muslim world. At least five countries – Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Sudan and his native Syria – have issued stamps in his honour. The highest and eternal reward will, of course, be awarded to him in Heaven. May he rest in peace.