Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Palestinian resistance archbishop dies in Vatican

The death of Jerusalem’s Archbishop Hilarion Capucci is a reminder of the long history of armed Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, writes Amira Howeidy

Jerusalem’s Archbishop Hilarion Capucci
Jerusalem’s Archbishop Hilarion Capucci

Jerusalem’s Archbishop Hilarion Capucci was a household name across the Arab world in the mid-1970s. At a time when Palestinian armed struggle was popular, even endorsed by Arab regimes, the unlikely figure of the Catholic archbishop gained celebrity status as a symbol of resistance against the Israeli occupation. Iconic images of the then 52-year-old Capucci in his all-black Melkite Catholic vestment appeared on stamps in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Kuwait, Iraq and Syria, among others.

News of Capucci started to fade since his exile from Jerusalem to the Vatican in 1977 and as the region’s political tide changed in the two decades that followed. The announcement of his death on 1 January in the Vatican reintroduced his legacy to the post-Arab Spring generation that had barely heard of him. Now is a time when armed Palestinian resistance is termed terrorism, and resistance fighters largely hailing from Islamist groups and when Islamic State versus authoritarian regime binaries cut through the social and political fabric of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and the more so in Aleppo, his hometown, where he chose to side with Bashar Al-Assad.

Born in Aleppo in 1922, Capucci was ordained a priest of the Baselian Alepian Order in 1947. He became archbishop of Caesarea for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Jerusalem in 1965. Two years later, Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Egypt’s Sinai and Syria’s Golan Heights in June 1967.

Over the years he won a reputation for speaking out against the occupation and calling for the liberation of the occupied territories, including 1948 Palestine, and even joining protests. That was long before he was arrested in August 1974 by the Israeli police for smuggling weapons in his car to the Palestinian resistance while on his way from Jerusalem to Nazareth.

A rare black and white photo of Capucci taken by the Israeli authorities show him standing next to the cache of weapons allegedly found in his possession lined on a table, his right hand in his pocket looking away from the camera with half closed eyes. He is seen wearing a light coloured garment, not his black clerical uniform, and without his head cover.

In December 1974 an Israeli court found Capucci guilty of collaborating with the Fatah Movement and sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Throughout his trial, he refused to recognise the court, situated on occupied Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem, and thus its proceedings were illegal, his lawyer said.

A statement by the Vatican (which did not recognise Israel at the time) described the sentence as a serious blow aimed at the Melkite Church.

As a prisoner, Capucci was allowed a one-man cell, his clerical robes, and was visited by priests, including the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. In 1976, he went on a series of hunger strike to protest prison conditions after informing his supervisor, Patriarch Maxioms V Hakim Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem, that he was beaten and harassed. Capucci lost 34 kilograms in weight.

He was eventually released, in November 1977, after serving four years, following a request by the Pope to the Israeli president who, after a period of negotiations, reduced Capucci’s sentence. He was deported to Rome where he was immediately admitted to hospital.

Capucci continued his activism, attending conferences of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) of which he was a member. He was vocal in opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and twice boarded ships attempting to break the siege of Gaza. The last attempt was on the Turkish humanitarian aid flotilla Mavi Marmara, which was seized and attacked by the Israeli navy 31 May 2010. Nine activists were killed.

Capucci and the remaining activists on board were held in Israel’s Beershiba Prison and deported.

Following his death, social media users circulated a photo of Capucci on the Mavi Marmara before the Israeli raid, as a sign of his unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause and for unity between Muslims and Christians. The photo shows Capucci seated on a chair with a red bible resting on his hips, hands folded in prayer. He is surrounded by a group of Muslim men praying. The man standing next to him was then Muslim Brotherhood MP Mohamed Al-Beltagi, who is now in prison on multiple charges since 2013.

Until recently Capucci, despite his age, remained vocal in his support for the Palestinian struggle. In 2015, he sent solidarity messages to Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails.

The PLO described his death as a major national loss. A statement by Hamas mourning Capucci said he encapsulated the unity of both Arab pain and hopes. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said his death has deeply saddened the heart of every Palestinian.

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