Gun-Running Bishop in Flotilla

On a symbolic level, the appearance of a man of the cloth at a protest rally gives the protestors an aura of credibility. The logic is that members of the clergy are responsible to God, and theoretically to the churches they serve, and therefore would not endorse an unworthy cause, much less a violent one.

It is for that reason that the Free Gaza Movement was lucky to have retired Melkite Bishop Hilarion Capucci participating in its most recent effort to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. To the uninformed, Capucci’s presence in the flotilla gives credence to the notion that the flotilla’s intentions were peaceful and innocent. Consequently, Capucci was on board a boat that was intercepted on its way to Gaza in in 2009. It was also why he participated in the flotilla that was recently boarded by Israeli soldiers in 2010. After his expulsion from Israel, Capucci told Reuters that the Israeli raid was “unwarranted.” The article continued:
“Our trip to Gaza was a trip of love and God was with us. Israel by its actions had rightly drawn world outrage over its brutality against unarmed people carrying a message of love to an innocent occupied people under siege,” Capucci said.
People who are aware of Capucci’s past will have a tough time taking Capucci’s statement at face value.
In 1975, Capucci was convicted of smuggling guns from Lebanon into the West Bank. Moreover, he rebuked an American held in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.

He Fought the Law

Capucci was arrested by Israeli police on Aug. 18, 1974 and charged with smuggling weapons into the West Bank. The following day the New York Times reported that Capucci, who was born and raised in Syria, was accused of “acting as undercover liaison man between Al Fatah guerrilla group [in Lebanon] and Palestinian guerilla cells” in the West Bank. According to a Times summary, police reported that

large quantities of weapons and explosives were found hidden in his Mercedes sedan in Aug after he returned from visit to Lebanon. Source says Capucci was associated with abortive incident in May during Sec Kissinger’s visit in which 3 Katyusha rockets were aimed at the center of Jerusalem. Rockets were discovered before they went off.

Later that month (Aug. 24), the Times reported that Capucci had allegedly told Israelis that he was “forced into guerrilla service by threats of blackmail.” Capucci told the Israelis that he was threatened with physical violence and “the disclosure of actions that might jeopardize his position” within the church. The Times also reported that Capucci faced charges of being accessory to murder because three men who were accused of murdering a Jerusalem taxi driver obtained their weapons from one of Capucci’s drop points.

During the trial, Capucci refused to give a statement or sworn evidence because he said Jerusalem was Arab territory and that “Israeli law does not apply in the city” (New York Times, Oct. 30, 1974).

Eventually, Capucci was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He spent two years in prison before the Israeli government released him after a special request from the Vatican. On Nov. 4, 1977 the Washington Post reported from Jerusalem about Capucci’s impending release:

Demands for Capucci’s release have turned up regularly in the lists submitted by airplane hijackers, including the Entebbe hijackers, but where the threats have failed, a personal letter from Pope Paul has apparently succeeded. …. The price Israel extracted from the Vatican for Capucci’s release was a personal letter from the Pope which, according to officials here, contains some admission of Capucci’s guilt and the acknowledgement that he received a fair trial. At the very least, sources said, the letter cannot be construed as a denial of his guilt. The appeal is being made on humanitarian grounds.
The understanding with the Vatican, according to Israeli sources, is that Capucci will not be allowed to make propaganda for the Arabs against Israel and that he is to be posted to a place outside the Middle East.
There seems to be very little question that Capucci was in fact smuggling arms for the Palestinian Liberation Organization and at least one Israeli is thought to have died as a result. The PLO denies his guilt and has declared him a martyr, but privately many PLO members do not bother to deny his guilt and deplore his carelessness in getting caught.
Capucci has been held in the maximum security prison in Ramleh since his conviction, according to diplomatic sources who have visited him, and has been accorded better treatment than the average prisoner.

Israel’s demand that Capucci would not propagandize was likely a response to a letter he wrote from prison which was published in a number of venues including the Journal of Palestine Studies. In the letter, Capucci portrays Israel as violating and desecrating the Holy Land, undermining the Al Aska Mosque and violating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “Our most precious land has been desecrated and we have shuddered with repulsion to see it happen.”

Upon his release from Israeli prison on November 4, 1977, Capucci was assigned to serve Melkite communities in Latin America (Washington Post, Dec. 23, 1977). “His assignment to a post outside the Middle East was thought to be a condition of his release,” the Post reiterated.

On May 8, 1979, the Washington Post reported that Capucci “surprised the Vatican and irked Israel by attending a Palestine Liberation Organization Meeting in Damascus. The Vatican reportedly has told Israel it will try to keep him out of the Middle East.”

During the Iran hostage crisis, Capucci was sent to Iran to ascertain the condition of the Americans held in Tehran. His presence was not welcome by the American hostages. On Jan. 29, 1981 the New York Times reported the following about Capucci’s visit to the hostages in Iran:

From his home in Olyphant, Pa., Michael J. Metrinko, political officer, criticized Archbishop Hilarion Capucci of the Melkite Church of the Eastern Rite. He said the Archbishop, who made one trip with Father Rupiper [another priest who had visited the hostages], had seen a few well-treated prisoners ”and spent the rest of the time enjoying himself with the guards.”
”I tried to tell Capucci what things were like, and he just went into a diatribe about how bad things were in Israeli prisons,” Mr. Metrinko said.

Hilarion Capucci, man of peace.

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