Archbishop Hilarion Capucci: A Freedom Fighter for Palestine, Loved by Arab Christians and Muslims, A Retrospective

Posted on May 14, 2020

 

Archbishop Hilarion Capucci: A Freedom Fighter for Palestine, Loved by Arab Christians and Muslims, A Retrospective

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer *

While some dramas during the Ramadan season are racing to promote the idea of ​​normalization with Israel, the series “Hares Al-Quds”–Guardian of Jerusalem, traces the biography of the late Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, a Syrian Melkite Christian cleric, born in Aleppo. The series was written by Hassan Youssef and directed by Basil Al-Khatib, and stars actor Rashid Assaf who played the role of the bishop.

Capucci is a hero to Palestinians and other Arabs of both Christian and Islamic persuasions. For this and other reasons, Capucci is not popular among most Israelis. Although he passed away at age 94 in 2017, he remains famous to this day for his passionate support to the Palestinian and other causes. Capucci’s activities range from helping the U.S. to release American hostages in Iran to his arrest in Israel for allegedly transporting arms to Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Image: Archbishop Hilarion Capucci played during Ramadan by Syrian actor Youssef Badawi in the new soap series “Hares Al-Quds,” Guardian of Jerusalem.

Archbishop Hilarion Capucci played during Ramadan by Syrian actor Youssef Badawi in the new soap series “Hares Al-Quds,” Guardian of Jerusalem.

 

An Arab Syrian Priest–a Man for All Arabs but especially for Palestinians

Hilarion Capucci was born in Aleppo Syria in 1923 and educated at St. Anne’s Seminary in Jerusalem. He was ordained a priest of the Basilian Alepian Order in July 1947, one year before the formation of what became Israel and the destruction and displacement of Palestinian society. Thus, as a young man, Capucci witnessed the devastation of the Palestinian people firsthand. He rose rapidly in the Church, having been promoted in 1965 to the post of Syrian Catholic Bishop, who is the titular archbishop of Caesarea in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Jerusalem. While this Church serves a small community of 4,500 Christians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and central Israel, it became an important platform for Capucci. Ever since the Israeli occupation of more of Palestine in 1967, he became an opponent of the occupation and quickly aligned himself with the Palestinian cause.

Image: Melkite Church in Jerusalem

Melkite Church in Jerusalem

For several decades, Capucci aided the Palestinians, other Arabs, and non-Arabs in a variety of ways, some admirable, other perhaps less so. For example, in 1974, he was arrested by Israeli security forces for smuggling weapons into the West Bank. Specifically, Capucci was accused of misusing his diplomatic status to smuggle arms for use by the Palestine Liberation Army, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. At that time, the Archbishop was quoted by the New York Times, as addressing the court as follows, “…if Jesus were alive they would have wept together.” After he served three years in prison, the Pope in Rome asked for his release on humanitarian grounds, but with the Israeli restriction that Archbishop Capucci not be reassigned to the Middle East. He was sent to Rome via commercial air and was met at the airport by a delegation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization delegation.

Image: Several Arab countries have issued postage stamps in honor of Archbishop Capucci.

Several Arab countries have issued postage stamps in honor of Archbishop Capucci.

Continued activism following Israel’s ban on the Archbishop from the Middle East

Five years following Capucci’s ban from the Middle East, the Israelis were annoyed to find him in Damascus at a meeting of the PLO, of which he was a member. The Vatican was not happy, as well, and transferred him to Western Europe. Also in 1979, the Archbishop, through his diplomatic role, visited American hostages who were captives of the Ayatollah in Iran, followed by his accompaniment of the bodies of eight U.S. airmen who were killed in an unsuccessful attempt to free the hostages. Still active in 2010, Capucci was aboard a Turkish ship taking relief to then-blockaded Gaza; the ship was intercepted by the Israeli navy. According to a report in Al-Jazeera, “Known to some as the ‘Father of the Palestinians’ or ‘Archbishop of the Arabs’, Monsignor Hilarion Capucci was an enigmatic freedom-fighting Christian Archbishop in Jerusalem who was jailed for smuggling arms for the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, but continued battling for the Palestinians until his death.”

Negative Experiences with Israel that led the Archbishop’s Fight for Palestine

A highly impressionable experience for the then young priest-in-training occurred in 1946 in Jerusalem, where he witnessed the bombing of the King David Hotel by members of the Zionist military group Irgun. He was deeply affected by this action and as reported by Al-Jazeera, Capucci wrote: “I was the only student who left the Saint Anne monastery that day. I saw the destruction and the bodies of 90 English and Arab victims … I felt unbearable pain.” Then, moving forward in time from the period of Israel’s founding to 1967, when the Israelis occupied the Palestinian West Bank, Capucci recalled, that “He saw ‘martyrs’ in the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem. He buried 400 bodies himself. Muslim Sheikhs helped him with the burials.”

Image: On May 14, 1948, Zionist Leader David Ben-Gurion announced to the world that the state of Israel would be formed

On May 14, 1948, Zionist Leader David Ben-Gurion announced to the world that the state of Israel would be formed

At this point, because of the atrocities of war that he experienced, Capucci decided to end his relationship with the State of Israel. It was also the moment at which he began “an aggressive underground campaign to provide weapons for Fatah and other Palestinian resistance factions.” Adding to his pro-Arab bona fides was his opposition to the 2003 Iraq war, then the already-mentioned 2010 example of Capucci boarding the Turkish ship that was taking relief to Gaza.

Image: The Israeli occupation of the West Bank really triggered Capucci’s hatred of the State of Israel

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank really triggered Capucci’s hatred of the State of Israel

We may not normally associate religious leaders with violence, but in the case of Archbishop Capucci, there may have been a compelling rationale for his resort to a militant stance. He justified that stance by the power struggle occurring between the overpowering Israeli military force and the disempowered Palestinians. On religious grounds, it can be rationalized, perhaps, in terms of oppressor/oppressed inequities. Whether Capucci was right in believing that “might makes right” is laudable, even in the face of an enemy that has more might than the oppressed. The Archbishop made clear his moral, ethical, and religious beliefs in taking sides and in winning the battle by securing the sentiments of Muslims and Christians alike in this region of unending conflict.

References:

“Hilarion Capucci, Archbishop Jailed for Aiding Palestinian Militants, Dies at 94,” New York Times, 1/2/2017

“The Archbishop and the PLO: The story of Hilarion Capucci, the freedom-fighting Archbishop in Jerusalem who stood up for the Palestinian cause,” Al-Jazeera 2/27/2019

“Hilarion Capucci,” Wikipedia, 2020

* John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.