A 63-year-old Lebanese Carmelite nun with firsthand knowledge of the Syrian conflict spoke Dec. 6 at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, Downtown Brooklyn.
Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross, mother superior at the Monastery and Convent of St. James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria (north of Damascus), recently went on a six-week speaking tour through the U.S. and Canada, giving an alternative view on what the Western press has been reporting during the 32-month-long conflict. Mother Agnes is also the president of the International Support Team for Mussalaha (reconciliation) in Syria.
In cooperation with the Syria Solidarity Movement, Mother Agnes’ speaking tour, titled “What Is Really Happening in Syria Today?,” recently wrapped up in Washington, D.C. after stops in Tucson, Ariz., California, , Cleveland, Denver, Lincoln, Neb., Canada and Brooklyn. It was her first-ever visit to the U.S.
Mother Agnes has lived the past 20 years in Syria and remembers a time when the people of the nation lived together in unity, enjoying freedom of religion. The secular dictatorship government under Bashar al-Assad suppressed political rights for civilians, yet the minority Christian groups had lived in peace with Muslims for over 40 years.
However, the uprising against the Assad government – which was supposed to promote democratic values – turned violent in March, 2011, and it has instead been hijacked by al Qaeda terrorist groups looking to gain a stronghold in Syria.
In her PowerPoint presentation, Mother Agnes showed photos – some extremely graphic – of the suffering of Syrian civilians. In 2013 alone, 120,000 Syrians have died and another seven million are in need. She said the mainstream media coverage has been “terribly biased” in trying to attack the Assad dictatorship.
“What is really happening on the ground is that the Syrian population is under heavy threat by all kinds of mercenaries coming from 80 countries to destroy all the infrastructure of the state – churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues,” Mother Agnes said. “They want to reduce Syria to a kind of Ground Zero, to rebuild it and shape it like Afghanistan, like Somalia. It means a kind of Islamic caliphate that has nothing to do with real Islam.”
The rebel jihadists are funded by Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries, and they oppose both Assad and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Their job is to infiltrate Syria and cause chaos – which they are doing effectively. Syria has thus become a pawn between numerous factions fighting over its control in what has evolved into a civil war.
According to Archpriest Thomas Zain, vicar general of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Christians have tried to remain neutral but now seem to be siding with the Assad government since they lived in peace before the terrorist groups invaded. Mother Agnes has been referred to as a “stooge for the Assad government,” though she claims to have never voiced any support of Assad.
“The press is saying all kind of things of us,” Mother Agnes said. “I have never expressed any political support to anybody. I try to help many rebels because they are young … to set them free. I want to help democracy. But I can’t help foreign fighters that come to abduct, to rape, to behead and sometimes to eat the organs of people. They have committed atrocities.”
Mother Agnes gained international notoriety after the Assad government’s alleged chemical weapons attack in late August in eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria. She studied online videos of the deceased and submitted a 50-page report to the U.N. claiming that some of the videos had been fabricated and that the Assad government is innocent of this charge.
Earlier this year, the U.S. chose not to intervene against the terrorists on behalf of the Assad government based on these allegations and also because of the World Day of Prayer called by Pope Francis. However, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov cited Mother Agnes’ report to support his view that the weapons were instead triggered by the terrorist groups.
Mother Agnes has also been in contact with a group of 16 nuns and orphans abducted by the jihadist groups from the St. Thekla Monastery in Maalouola, Syria, a town in which Aramaic – the language of Jesus Christ – is still spoken. The terrorists attacked the village in September; the Assad government regained control; but as the government tried to clear the area along the Lebanese border, the terrorists came back and abducted the nuns.
On the day of her Brooklyn talk, Mother Agnes said she spoke to the superior of the abducted nuns, who said all the nuns are fine. The terrorists have two conditions before their release: First, the FSA would have to withdraw from Qara, a key village captured in mid-November; and second, the terrorists want the FSA to remove a cannon stationed in Saidnaya.
On a Mission for Peace
Despite opposition and the fact that the terrorist groups do not want her speaking out, Mother Agnes has refused to remain silent in promoting her non-sectarian message supporting peace, love and reconciliation. She said she is on a mission for peace in Syria through nonviolent means.
In late October, Mother Agnes was successful in establishing a cease-fire in the city of Moadamiya, which had been held by terrorists. She helped evacuate nearly 5,400 civilians.
“Forgive one another for the sake of Syria,” she said during her talk. “This is the message we would like to bring to all parties in Syria. As Christians, if we see something, we cannot remain silent.”
She continued, “This is not politics; it is charity,” a remark that received a round of applause from the crowd at St. Nicholas.
Father Zain said that if the Syrian government falls, the Christians in Syria would experience the same fate as those in Iraq, Libya and Egypt.
“In Iraq despite our billions of dollars and our American troops going there to implant democracy, it didn’t work,” he said. “Who were the scapegoats? The Christians.”
A solution to this conflict is not close in sight, but Mother Agnes and Father Zain both said that they hope the next round of peace talks – set for Jan. 22, 2014 in Geneva – will begin to move toward peace. Father Zain said that the FSA would be willing to work with the Assad government to oust the terrorist groups – even though the FSA opposes Assad’s regime.
However, the peace conference, known as Geneva II, may not even happen, Father Zain said, and would carry only little hope of a nonviolent solution being reached. The al Qaeda groups are not expected to attend.
Mother Agnes said she recognizes the threat to her safety, but she said if she remains silent, she would consider herself an accomplice to the suffering being wrought on innocent civilians.
Threats to her appearance in Brooklyn did not materialize, perhaps due to the police presence outside the cathedral.
“As religious and nuns, we are for the people,” she said. “Our life is a contemplative life, but we are also open to hospitality. We are here to listen.
“We have also to witness to what is happening in Syria.”