The Vatican has issued a statement saying it has not given permission to Melkite Catholic Archbishop Ilarion Capucci to visit Damascus, Syria.

The Syrian-born Melkite patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, who was released in 1977 from an Israeli prison after he had served three years of a 12-year sentence for gun-running, appeared at a recent Palestine National Council conference in Damascus.

He was reported to have spoken on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In a statement issued Jan. 24, the Vatican said that Archbishop Capucci, who had been assigned pastoral duties in Latin America, "made the trip to Damascus on his own initiative, without having previously informed the Holy See."

The archbishop was convicted and sent to prison in 1974 on charges of smuggling guns and explosives from Lebanon to Palestinian guerrillas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.

He was released from prison and deported from Israel after the late Pope Paul VI had made a formal appeal to Israeli President Ephraim Katzir. The pontiff urged clemency on humanitarian grounds.

At the time of his release, Israeli sources said it was the understanding between the Israeli government and the Vatican that the archbishop would be forbidden to make propaganda for the Arab cause and would be posted to a place outside the Middle East.

After a brief time at a Rome sanitorium, Archbishop Capucci left Rome on Jan. 21 for an extended official visit to Melkite Catholic communities in Latin America.

In an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al Watan, Archbishop Capucci claimed there was nothing in the "Israeli-Vatican deal" to prevent him from making short visits to the Middle East.