Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Hilarion Capucci: a reminder of resistance history


Hilarion ibn Bashir Capucci died today (along with a lot of other people, no doubt, probably quite a few in his home city of Aleppo).

Capucci caught my attention, though, because he is something of a reminder of a bygone era of Palestinian resistance, and a rare example of that resistance crossing the border between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ – the high-profile armed factions operating principally from Lebanon, and the smaller, less well-known resistance existing within the State of Israel and the territories occupied in the June War of 1967.

Capucci was the Melkite Bishop of Jerusalem, born in Aleppo in 1922, ordained in 1947 and appointed to the See of Jerusalem in 1965 (and allegedly asked by the Vatican and King Hussein of Jordan in 1968 to approach the Israeli government to ask for talks). The Melkites are Eastern Rite Catholics, allied (like the Maronites) to the Catholic Church but not precisely of it. Nevertheless, when Capucci was arrested in August 1974 for bringing a selection of arms in his diplomatic Mercedes across the Lebanese border, with plans to pass them to the Palestine Liberation Army, it was Vatican ID which had given that car its special status, and the Vatican which got embroiled.

Monsignor Lutfi Lahem, Capucci’s successor as Bishop of Jerusalem expressed his surprise at the Israeli response, suggesting that no-one should be surprised that a priest should follow his conscience, even if that meant being involved in the armed struggle. And a gathering of Christian hierarchy in Damascus in September 1974 is said to have declared that Capucci’s arrest was an act intended by the Israeli state to silence critics, appease religious groups within Israel, and force the Vatican to shift its policy on Palestine.

Despite being represented by the able lawyer Aziz Shehadeh (father of the writer and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh and the subject of Raja’s book Strangers in the House, about his father’s murder by an Israeli collaborator and the Israeli authorities’ long-term cover-up of this fact), Capucci was sentenced to a total of 57 years in an Israeli jail. In 1974, he was one of the prisoners for whom the DFLP demanded release in exchange for hostages the organisation had taken in Beisan (Israeli Beit She’an), and the range of posters in various languages urging his release show that he was considered a significant issue by Palestine solidarity and resistance groups. In 1977, at the Vatican’s urging and with its promise that he would stay out of politics in future, he was released – and appeared at a PLO conference less than two years later. He also described Jesus as “the first fedayee” or Palestinian freedom fighter.

Capucci carried on his support of Palestinian rights into his 90s. In February 2009 he was on a boat, the Tali, which tried to break the blockade of Gaza, and in 2010 he repeated the attempt with the Freedom Flotilla journey that became notorious when Israeli commandos executed 9 Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara. He was apparently a regular on demonstrations and rallies in Rome, and also spoke at events in the USA. In June 2015 Capucci sent a message of solidarity to Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails; he himself had gone on hunger strike whilst in prison in 1976.

As well as his statements on Palestine, Capucci urged solidarity between Christians and Muslims, arguing that there had been understanding between the two faiths at the birth of Islam because both were monotheistic religions and essentially worshipped the same God. He cited the existence of Christian Arab peoples such as the Ghassanids and the significance of the Virgin Mary in the Qur’an as links binding the people of the ahl al-kitab.

Sadly, like a proportion of left-wing supporters of Palestine – and no doubt linked to his complex identity as a Syrian-born Christian anti-Zionist – Capucci had also recently come out as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, describing reports of his human rights abuses as a Zionist plot.

Palestine Poster Project images of Hilarion Capucci:

2 comments on “Hilarion Capucci: a reminder of resistance history

  1. labrebisgalloise
    January 2, 2017

    What is most sad is that otherwise sensible people like yourself see fit to support the head-chopping jihadis from which Aleppo has mercifully now been purged. Are these people liars?

    • Sarah Irving
      January 2, 2017

      “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”? Such a nuanced approach, and it’s served the world so well this far… Sigh.

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