Hilarion Capucci
Hilarion Capucci pictured at a rally in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Rome on 30 August 2013 REUTERS/Max Rossi

A Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem who was convicted of using his diplomatic status to smuggle arms to Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank has died at the age of 94.

The Vatican and the Greek Melkite Catholic patriarchate have confirmed that Monsignor Hilarion Capucci passed away in Rome on New Year's Day. Neither body gave any further details. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas offered his condolences and called Capucci a "freedom fighter", according to the Associated Press (AP).

The Aleppo-born Capucci, who was ordained a priest of the Basilian Alepian Order of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in 1947, also twice joined flotillas attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Appointed a patriarchal vicar of Jerusalem and archbishop of Caesarea in 1965, he had a history of activism linked to the Palestinian and other Middle East conflicts.

In 1974 he was handed a 12-year prison sentence by Israeli authorities after he was stopped carrying four Kalashnikov rifles, two pistols, ammunition and grenades in a car bearing Vatican diplomatic plates.

The cache of weapons was intended for members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) but the cleric claimed that he was forced to carry the weapons. After two years in prison, Pope Paul VI helped secure Capucci's release, reported the BBC in 1977.

In 1979, and then again in 1980, Capucci attempted to mediate in the Iran hostage crisis and helped to secure the transfer of the bodies of eight US airmen killed in the failed Operation Eagle Claw rescue mission.

He also travelled to Iraq in 1990, where he helped to secure the freedom of 68 Italians prevented from leaving the Middle East following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

Capucci was aboard two flotillas, a Lebanese ship bound for Gaza in 2009, and the ill-fated Turkish-owned ship, the Mavi Marmara, in 2010, which were intercepted by the Israeli military.

During the second attempt to breach the Israeli blockade, ten Turkish activists were killed and dozens wounded after Israeli commandos boarded the ship, descending on ropes from helicopters. Capucci was held in Beersheba prison before being deported.