Israel released Greek Catholic Archbishop Hilarion Capucci from prison today, following a personal appeal from Pope Paul to Ephraim Katzir, the president of Israel.
Capucci, 55, who had served three years of a 12-year sentence for smuggling arms and explosives into Israel for Palestine Liberation Organization, was released from Ramleh prison and put aboard an Atitalia plane to Rome this evening.
The Syrian-born archibishop was driven to the waiting plane, and he seemed to have difficulty walking. Before he boarded the plane he kissed the ground in a dramatic gesture to the land he seems destined not to see again.
The release followed long negotiations between Jerusalem and the Vatican. The previous Labor Party government of Israel had considered releasing Capucci, but thought that the opposition party of Menahem Begin would make it an election issue.
When Begin came to power, the case was reopened, and it is understood that Begin insisted on a personal letter from the Pope to the president of Israel. The Vatican has never formally recognized the state of Israel.
Israeli sources said the understanding reached during the negotiations was: (1) that Capucci not be allowed to make anti-Israeli propoganda for the Arabs (2) that he be posted far from the Middle East and (3) that the Pope's letter not deny his guilt.
Israel would have preferred some admission of guilt, but this was not spelled out in the Pope's letter. The letter did say, however, that the Vatican was confident that Capucci's release "will not be detrimental to the state of Israel."
It is understood here that the arch-bishop will be posted to Brazil after undergoing medical treatment in Rome. Capucci is reported to have lost weight because of repeated hunger strikes. His release has been demanded by many terrorists, including the Entebbe hijackers.
The Pope's letter said: "We are deeply concerned at the present serious health conditions of Archbishop Capucci, Melchite patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem, detained in an Israeli prison. We have also received requests from many quarters that a solution be sought through our efforts.
"We therefore ask you excellency to be so good as to make use of your prerogatives of clemency as president of the state of Israel in favor of Archbishop Hilarion Capucci and to have him released from prison. And we are confident that his release will not be detrimental to the state of Israel.
"Such an act cannot fail to be considered as one of friendly kindness towards us and will be truly appreciated.
"With confidence in your benevolent attention to our request we assure your excellency of our sentiments of highest consideration."
Israeli officials said they hoped the move would improve relations between Israel and the Vatican as well as the whole Catholic world.
The Greek Catholic Church is a brakaway sect of the Greek Orthodox church that recognized the authority of the Pope in Rome in 1860.