Bishop Capucci and the mix of religion and patriotism
At a time when churches, mosques and hotel restaurants are being bombed by persons claiming to do it in the name of religion, it is hard to continue to trust in anyone mixing religion with patriotism.
But while such a mix is being challenged by secularism and the idea of civil state, we are reminded of a person who exemplified what faith can do in terms of defending the weak, standing by the lonely and protesting injustice.
This year began with the news of the passing away of 94-year-old former archbishop of Jerusalem Hilarion Capucci, a Christian Melkite priest who won the hearts of Arabs, Muslims and people of other faiths around the world.
Palestinians of all walks of life were attracted to this patriotic priest who genuinely loved and supported them. Upon the news of his death, the Palestinian president eulogised him, calling him a champion who defended Palestinian rights.
The Islamic Hamas movement also issued a statement paying tribute to his support for Palestine.
Born in Aleppo in 1922 to a Christian Syrian family, he adopted the name of a Christian saint, Hilarion, who had lived in south Gaza in the fourth century.
Capucci’s move to Jerusalem in 1965 made him a witness to the Israeli military occupation of Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine.
Bishop Capucci quickly found in the words and lives of Jesus, who lived in Jerusalem, the perfect role model for a spiritual leader.
Siding with the oppressed people of Palestine, Capucci followed a theology that was born in South America and had made its way around the world. The liberation theology follows the concept that truly faithful Christians have no choice but to be committed to fighting poverty and injustice, not to favour the rich and the powerful.
The best-known form of liberation theology is that which developed within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, arising principally as a moral reaction to the poverty and social injustice in the region.
The term was coined in 1971 by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote one of the movement’s defining books, “A Theology of Liberation”.
Capucci’ stand and position was influential in the creation of a Palestinian liberation theology movement which was highlighted by the creation of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, a totally non-violent movement that was founded by Anglican pastor Naim Ateek.
Other developments in this area include the Kairos Palestine which describes itself as “a Christian Palestinian movement, born out of the Kairos Document signed in 2010 by leading Palestinian Christians, which advocates an end to the Israeli occupation and achieving a just solution to the conflict.
“Christ at the checkpoint”, a bi-annual Palestinian evangelical conference held by the Bethlehem Bible College, focusing on the theology of the land, was born in the same period.
While for the most part liberation theology believes in the use of non-violence to accomplish its goals, Capucci had no problem in justifying resistance to unjust military occupation.
Capucci was arrested by Israel in 1974 and was sentenced to 12 years in jail, accused of using his diplomatically licensed car to transport weapons for the Palestinians.
He spent two years in jail during which he went on several hunger strikes.
The sentence was reduced as part of a Vatican agreement which included Capucci agreeing to leave Palestine and not to visit Arab countries or talk to the press.
After a few years in South America, Capucci returned to Rome and continued his effort as a champion of the Palestinian cause as well as many other humanitarian causes.
His story and stand made him a popular figure throughout the region with his like being replicated in postcards in Arab countries; he often toured the world on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
His high visibility proved helpful in solving many humanitarian problems, including releasing hostages and helping return bodies of American soldiers, an effort that brought public gratitude from US president Ronald Reagan.
Bishop Capucci would make a final visit to the Holy Land, although not the way he wanted.
In 2010, he joined hundreds of people from around the world on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Israeli navy intercepted the flotilla and killed nine individuals, including an American citizen.
The ships attempting to break the Gaza siege were finally brought to the Ashqelon port and the passengers were arrested and released after a few days in an Israeli prison.
Shortly after Christmas last year, the 94-year-old bishop was taken to a Rome hospital suffering from lung infection. He passed away on January 1, 2017.
With life being arbitrarily taken away in the name of religion, it might be difficult nowadays to advocate for the mix of religion and politics.
Capucci, however, is a reminder that it is possible to be a true man of faith, value life, stand with the oppressed and fight for justice.