Middle East

Hilarion Capucci: Arms-smuggling archbishop dies aged 94

Hilarion Capucci (C) makes victory signs before setting sail on Gaza-bound aid ship (2 February 2009) from northern Lebanese city of Tripoli Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hilarion Capucci twice joined flotillas attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip

A former Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem who was convicted of smuggling arms for Palestinian militants has died aged 94.

Monsignor Hilarion Capucci served two years of a 12-year sentence in Israel before the Vatican helped secure his release.

He had a history of activism linked to Middle East conflicts.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered his condolences and described him as a great "freedom fighter".

The Vatican confirmed his death on Monday, but did not say exactly when he died or give any more details.

Capucci was born in Syria's second city, Aleppo, in 1922.

He was ordained a priest of the Basilian Alepian Order of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in 1947 and was appointed Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem and Archbishop of Caesarea in 1965.

In 1974, he was travelling from Beirut to Jerusalem in a car bearing Vatican diplomatic plates when it was stopped by Israeli security forces.

Inside were four Kalashnikov rifles, two pistols, ammunition and grenades intended for members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Capucci insisted he had been forced to transport the weapons, but an Israeli court convicted him of smuggling and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

He was freed in 1977 following a personal appeal by Pope Paul VI.

Capucci remained in the headlines following his release, attempting to mediate in the Iran hostage crisis.

Although he reportedly angered a number of American captives with his comments during a visit to check on their welfare in 1980, he did play a key role in the transfer of the bodies of eight US airmen killed in a failed rescue mission.

In 1990, he travelled to Saddam Hussein's Iraq to help secure freedom for 68 Italians prevented from leaving following the invasion of Kuwait.

Ten years later, Capucci led a delegation of clerics and intellectuals to Iraq in a show of solidarity against UN sanctions.

In 2010, he was on board the Mavi Marmara when the Turkish-owned ship was intercepted by Israeli commandos as it took part in an aid flotilla attempting to breach the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Ten Turkish activists, one of them a dual American citizen, were killed and dozens wounded as clashes broke out after the commandos boarded the ship, descending on ropes from helicopters. Capucci said the raid was unwarranted.

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