Hilarion Capucci, priest and Middle East activist, dies

AP News
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Posted: Jan 02, 2017 9:35 AM

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Monsignor Hilarion Capucci, who was a Greek Melkite Catholic archbishop in Jerusalem when Israel convicted him in 1976 of using his diplomatic status to smuggle arms to Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank, has died. He was 94.

Both the Vatican and the Greek Melkite Catholic patriarchate on Monday confirmed reports the Capucci had died in Rome, but did not say when or provide other details.

A native of Aleppo, Syria, he had a history of activism linked to the Palestinian and other Middle East conflicts.

Capucci served two years of the 12-year sentence in an Israeli prison for the conviction, then was released due to Vatican intervention and deported.

In a statement on the Wafa news agency web site, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered his condolences and described Capucci as a great "freedom fighter" who was known for patriotic positions and defense of the rights of the Palestinian people.

The prelate went to Iraq to help secure freedom for 68 Italians in 1990. The Italians were among hundreds of Westerners Saddam Hussein's government had prevented from leaving Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait that year.

But the regime allowed politicians, prominent public figures and peace groups to escort some Westerners out of the country. Some people, including more than 100 Americans, had been held as "human shields" at strategic military and industrial sites in Iraq.

Capucci's activism continued well into his elder years.

He was 86 in 2009 when he was a passenger on an aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip that Israel intercepted. The ship had tried to enter Gaza in defiance of Israel's blockade of militant-held territory. The Israeli military cited concerns about smuggled weapons. Those aboard said the ship was carrying medicine, food and toys.

In 2000, Capucci led an anti-sanctions delegation to Iraq. The archbishop, leading a group of Italy-based clerics and intellectuals, flew to Baghdad from Syria on a humanitarian flight authorized by the U.N. sanctions committee.

Capucci told reporters at the time that two nations were suffering in the Middle East, "the Iraqis because of sanctions and the Palestinian people, who are fighting for their dignity."

While in Iraq, he visited a shelter that was struck by a U.S. missile during the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. military believed the building was an intelligence-gathering facility. More than 400 civilians were killed, and Capucci called the bombing victims "Iraqi martyrs."