Obituary: Hilarion Capucci, the Aleppo-born priest who championed Palestine

Obituary: Hilarion Capucci, the Aleppo-born priest who championed Palestine
Hilarion Capucci's deportation turned the bishop into a roving icon as he travelled the world speaking on behalf of the Palestinian cause, writes Daoud Kuttab
5 min read
04 January, 2017
Archbishop Hilarion Capucci joined activists as they prepare to sail to the Gaza Strip [AFP]

Hilarion Capucci, the former Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem, gained prominence as a defender of Palestinians at a time when priests around the world had taken up defending the weak and fighting for injustice.

He fought with and for Palestinians at the same time that priests in Latin America and elsewhere were championing what became known as the "liberation theology movement".

Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian member of the PLO executive committee, noted that the late bishop was a reminder of the days when priests were actively engaged in political struggles - from opposing 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 said.

Born in 1922 in Aleppo to Syrian Christian parents, George Khayyat Kabouji's love for Palestine was evident from the priestly name he adopted for himself. Hilarion was a Christian saint born in South Gaza in 32AD during the Byzantine era. Remnants of the St Hilarion Monastery, known in Arabic as Tell Umm Amer, stand today in the Gaza Strip as testimony to the fourth-century monk.

Capucci, who passed away in Rome on January 1, 2017, was eulogised by the Palestinian president as a fighter for Palestinian rights. In a statement on the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, Mahmoud Abbas offered his condolences and described Capucci as a great "freedom fighter".

The archbishop was accused by Israel of smuggling weapons to Palestinian fighters in the occupied territories from Beirut

Abbas, who was recently re-elected as Fatah's leader, praised the late bishop, whose death occurred on a day that also marked Fatah's 52nd anniversary of "defending the rights of the Palestinian people".

Capucci was appointed Bishop of Jerusalem in 1965, and his love for the city and the people of Palestine continued to grow. He witnessed the Israeli occupation in 1967 and he was clear in his position against injustice and occupation and in defence of Palestinians. He spoke out against Israeli injustice and campaigned on behalf of the Palestinian people.

In remembering him, a photo of Capucci with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, George Habash, went viral on social media.

The archbishop was accused by Israel of smuggling weapons from Beirut to Palestinian fighters in the occupied territories, and in 1976 was sentenced by an Israeli military court to a 12-year prison term for using his diplomatic status to smuggle arms to Palestinian fighters.

During his prison term he went on hunger strike a number of times and his continued detention caused some Palestinian guerilla movements to demand his release. Finally, in 1978, his prison term was reduced on the condition that he leave Palestine permanently.

The Israeli deportation turned Bishop Capucci into a roving icon, as he travelled the world speaking on behalf of the Palestinian cause. His many trips around the world included visits to Arab countries where he was hailed as a hero and received by senior officials.

Bishop Capucci joined the Turkish flotilla the Mavi Marmara that attempted to break the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip

The governments of Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Algeria and Syria have all honoured Capucci with postage stamps. Latin American countries have also honoured him.

In 2000 Capucci travelled to Baghdad in a last ditch attempt to avoid war and to speak out against the western-led sanctions that were imposed on Iraqis.

Hilarion Capucci had become an ambassador for Palestine in world affairs. He used his renown and visibility in many ways and was instrumental in resolving cases in which western hostages were held in Lebanon and in returning the bodies of Americans in Iran.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) eulogised Capucci, calling him "the beloved archbishop of Arabs and the champion of Palestine".

ADC said that the archbishop played an active role during the Iran hostage crisis. "He succeeded in securing the release of the bodies of the American soldiers who had died during a failed rescue attempt. President Ronald Reagan recognised his efforts."

Archbishop Capucci belonged to the Melkite Catholic Church which combines Catholic and Orthodox rites, and still falls under the authority of the Vatican. Melkites are based mostly in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan.

A fellow Melkite bishop, Father Elias Chacour, born in the town of Biram in north Israel, has also become known for his nonviolent calls in attempts to return to the Galilee village that his family and villagers were asked to leave for two weeks in 1952. They have since been barred from returning, a struggle he details in his best-selling book, Blood Brothers.

Capucci, who was denied the legal right to return to Palestine, did once more step foot in the Holy Land in 2008, at the age of 86.

Hilarion Capucci became an ambassador for Palestine in world affairs

Bishop Capucci joined the Turkish flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara that attempted to break the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip. The flotilla was violently stopped in international waters by the Israeli navy, and nine passengers including an American citizen were killed in the Israeli attack. The ship was finally brought to the Israeli port of Ashdod where Capucci and others were held and later deported.

After being based in different locations around the world, Hilarion Capucci spent his last years in Rome, where he was active in Muslim-Christian dialogue. 

Hamas issued a statement on January 2 lamenting the passing of Bishop Capucci. "We mourn the death of a great Arab revolutionary who dedicated most of his life to defending the Palestinian people and their just cause," read the statement.

"Archbishop Capucci's life was a demonstration of the oneness of Arab peoples and their shared pains and hopes," the Hamas statement read.

Tawfiq Barqawi, a Palestinian friend who lives in the US, says he spoke to the bishop on Christmas Day to wish him a Merry Christmas - and shared a laugh with the aging priest.

A few days later, the 94-year-old Bishop of Jerusalem passed away in Rome. The Palestinian ambassador to Italy Dr Mai Al-Akaila is arranging the transfer of the bishop's body to Lebanon, where he will be buried according to his wishes next to his mother's grave.


Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on @daoudkuttab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.