The slinging nun || On visit to Israel, Syrian-based nun backs beleaguered President Assad


Sister Agnes-Mariam de la Croix feared that the United States would attack Syria on Saturday night. She expected the attack to be massive and would bring disaster to Syria and the entire region. According to Sister Agnes-Mariam, there are today 150,000 well-trained jihadist fighters from 80 countries in Syria, with arms they have received from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and even from the United States. She says some of them are in a drugged state, induced by Captagon pills.

The nun lives in Syria and is the abbess, or mother superior, of the Monastery of St. James the Mutilated. She argues that these jihadi fighters control 60 percent of the populated areas of Syria. She claims that Islamic-Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States has designated a terrorist group, is responsible for the acts of mass murder, rape and looting that have been committed in Syria. She also claims the Chechen fighters are exceptionally cruel and that, among the foreign fighters, there are a fairly large number of released prisoners and citizens of western countries. In her opinion, most of Syria’s citizens support the regime of President Bashar Assad because they fear a takeover of the country by Islamic extremists.

She calls on the world not to attack Syria, and to stop the flow of foreign fighters into its territory and the supply of arms they are receiving. When she journeys through Syria today, she feels as if she is in Afghanistan or Somalia. An American attack on Syria will hurt its army and open the door to a complete seizure of the country by the global jihad movement, she firmly believes. “If this regime is toppled,” she says, “it will be worse than Iraq. It will have consequences for Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, and it’s not a situation that will promote security.”

She also believes the pictures of the victims of last month’s alleged chemical attack in east Damascus are fabrications.

I met Sister Agnes-Mariam this week in a convent in Jerusalem’s hills, not far from Abu Ghosh. She is visiting Israel for a few days and next week will return to Syria, where she has been living for the past 19 years. Her life story is as surprising as her statements about the situation there.

She was born Fadia al-Laham, 61 years ago in Jounieh, Lebanon (her parents had fled Nazareth in 1948). When she was 15 her father died, and, as she herself admits, over the next few years she became a hippy and flower child who used drugs and drifted between Nepal and India. On her palm, concealed by her nun’s habit, she still has a few tattoos from India � a memento of that time in her life. She says she loves tto listen to The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Santana. Her Indian experiences led her to embrace a cloistered life and, for 22 years, she lived in utter solitude in a Carmelite monastery in Lebanon’s highland region.

Sister Agnes-Mariam moved to Syria 19 years ago and, together with two other nuns, rebuilt the ruins of a monastery on the main road between Damascus and Homs, not far from the village of Qara. She became mother superior of the Monastery of St. James the Mutilated. In addition to the nuns of the convent, there are 20 Sunni refuges who have sought asylum from the horrors of the war.

She was forced to leave the monastery in June 2012, after the threats on her life increased because she was suspected of being an agent of the Assad regime. Her monastery is situated between the area controlled by the Free Syrian Army and the area controlled by the “foreign legions.”

Currently she lives in Damascus and is an international peace activist trying to warn the world of the dangers of a jihadist takeover of her adopted country. She is fighting what she considers a pack of lies, trying to counter the propaganda and disinformation in the Arab and international media, and documenting the atrocities of the war for the organization she has established. She arrived this week to visit relatives in Nazareth and to participate in an interfaith conference in Israel.

Lover of Israel

I first met her at an international peace conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she delivered a stunning speech and presented shocking video clips on what, in her view, is being committed by the jihadists. When I was introduced to her, she told me she loved Israel and that the Jews should serve as a light unto the nations. I was surprised to learn that she had come to Israel for a brief visit.

As a Lebanese, she argues, she cannot be suspected of being an agent of the Assad regime because Lebanon is, as she sees it, actually under Syrian occupation. She presents these arguments to deny the allegations that have been made against her, including the accusation that she is personally responsible - in January 2012 - for the death of French journalist Gilles Jacquier, 43, a TV reporter who was on assignment for the French channel France 2. She completely denies any responsibility for his death, arguing that she only helped him enter Syria.

She believes the Assad regime is the only thing that can save Syria from a takeover by Al-Qaida, and that most Syrians support the present regime. This, she explains, is why Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled so quickly and why Assad is still holding his own.

In late 2011, she says, she began to understand two things: First, that there was no truth in the reports about a Syrian opposition that was committed to democratic principles; and, second, that the rebellion was being launched primarily by foreigners. At first, she recalls, they were referred to as unidentified forces; however, she points out, their real identity emerged a few months later.

When the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television channel reported in the early stages of the fighting that a massacre had taken place in one of Damascus’ neighborhoods encircled by the Syrian army, she set out to see for herself what had happened, and was amazed to discover that the report was completely false. According to Sister Agnes-Mariam, when she expressed her condolences to the local priest of the neighborhood, he could not understand what she was talking about.

In December 2011 she traveled to Qusayr, after it was reported that civilians there had been massacred by the Syrian army. In the local hospital she was shown 100 bodies of civilians who had been murdered the night before; however, according to the testimony she gathered, she claims, the massacre was really carried out by gangs of foreigners.

Sister Agnes-Mariam believes the casualties are primarily caused by the fighting between the rebel forces themselves. And, in some cases, the Syrian army collaborates with the Free Syrian Army against the foreigners. In her opinion, the foreigners want the Islamic Sharia law to apply to all spheres of life in Syria, are establishing popular courts, and are executing people. For instance, she claims, the judge who was appointed in the northern town of Saraqib is actually someone who repairs tires.

In the past few months she has visited Homs, Aleppo, Qusayr, and other places where fighting has taken place. In addition, she has visited hospitals and private homes in her efforts to collect evidence for the Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria organization; she is the founder of the organization’s international branch.

During the alleged chemical attack on August 21, she was in Damascus. The week before the attack, she relates, a shocking massacre was carried out in Latakia, where at least 500 civilians were killed by organizations belonging to Al-Qaida, yet the world media barely reported this event.

As she sees it, Syria has returned to the most barbaric era in its history, and the media is staying silent. She believes Jabhat al-Nusra is committing massacres of both military personnel and civilians and is a threat to the entire civilized world, especially Lebanon and Israel - if Assad’s regime is toppled, a jihadist dictatorship will emerge in Syria. Thus, she claims, the United States is actually helping to strengthen Al-Qaida.

Sister Agnes-Mariam believes the pictures of last month’s alleged chemical attack were fabricated. Most of the civilians in that area had already fled, she claims, so how could there suddenly be dozens of children there? This part of Damascus now has 20,000 fighters from Jordan, she argues. If chemical weapons were used, she wonders, why do the photos show physicians and dozens of people standing in the immediate vicinity of the scene of the attack without gas masks or any other form of protection? After all, she says, the chemical weapons would be dangerous for them as well.

In the first alleged chemical attack, in Aleppo - where chemical weapons brought in from Turkey were employed - the physicians did not even dare to get close to the bodies of the victims. In the video clips that have been disseminated around the world and which allegedly document the most recent chemical attack, one can see dozens of people standing around the bodies. She points out that she was in Damascus that night, and that 50 bodies of soldiers who had suffocated, having been killed by gas in the army’s tunnels, were evacuated to a hospital. She claims an Islamic battalion was responsible for that attack, and that this was the only chemical attack to have taken place so far in the Syrian civil war.

The only thing that can stop the jihadists, she argues, is the Syrian army. In her opinion, if the present regime falls the situation in Syria will be worse than what it is today in Iraq. She implores U.S. President Barack Obama not to participate in what she sees as another war crime, as another atrocity committed against the civilian population. She cannot understand why the world is determined to go to war now because, she believes, the result will be that Syria will be controlled by chaotic, extremist groups.

The United States is not concerned with what is best for the Syrian people, she argues, but is operating in accordance with its own interests. Furthermore, she cannot understand why America wants to ignite yet another regional war, which will only lead to the emergence of one more cruel Islamic regime. “Why do you [the West] fuel a regional war to support radical Islam?” she asks. “Why?

“The United States says it has proof, but that’s not enough. They are a part of the conflict, so they can’t be a judge. It’s very dangerous when one nation tries to be the judge and the police of the world. This is not the first time they made a mistake.” She adds, “We don’t need another false war.”

“What can the West do?” she was asked. She replied that it should stop fueling the rebels with arms. “It’s a scandal what the West is doing.”

The original headline for this story was mistranslated from Hebrew

On Sep 23, 2013, at 4:52 PM, "" <> wrote:

A Nun Lends a Voice of Skepticism on the Use of Poison Gas by Syria

Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, lauded by supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, denied any link to his government.
Published: September 21, 2013
ADONIS, Lebanon ­ When Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, wanted to bolster his argument that rebels had carried out the poison gas attacks near Damascus on Aug. 21, he pointed to the work of a 61-year-old Lebanese-born nun who had concluded that the horrifying videos showing hundreds of dead and choking victims, including many children, had been fabricated ahead of time to provide a pretext for foreign intervention.

[] Video Feature

“Mr. Lavrov is an intelligent person,” said the nun, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, with a wide smile in a recent interview in this Lebanese mountain town. “He will never stick his name to someone who is saying stupidities.”

Mother Agnes, who had lived in Syria for years, has no expertise or training in chemical weapons forensics or filmmaking, and although she was in Damascus at the time of the attacks, she did not visit the sites or interview victims. Still, her assertions ­ she does not say which side made the videos ­ have significantly raised her once modest profile as the longtime superior of the Monastery of St. James the Mutilated, a Melkite Greek Catholic monastery in central Syria.

Now, she is lauded by supporters of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for championing narratives that resemble his own, and vilified by opposition activists who suspect the government supports her work as an unofficial ambassador.

International rights groups see Mr. Lavrov’s reference to the work of an untrained nun as a sign of desperation.

“The fact that the Russian government is relying on this woman’s assessment of what happened just shows the lack of evidence for their case,” said Lama Fakih, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch. “She is not a military expert.”

There are other shadows around Mother Agnes. She has helped foreign journalists obtain visas, suggesting trust by the government. The widow and two colleagues of Gilles Jacquier, a French journalist killed in Homs last year, published a book in which they suggest that she conspired in a lethal trap set by the government.

She has sued them for libel, denied any link to the government and has not spoken out in support of Mr. Assad himself. She criticized Syria for its occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005 and said that government helicopters had struck near the St. James monastery three times, causing damage. Her only interest, she said, is what is best for Syrians ­ she said that would be for outside powers not to interfere so that Syrians could solve their problems.

“It is not politics,” she said. “This is humanitarian.”

She refused to say who she thought had made the videos she called fakes, or who she thought had carried out the attacks. “I cannot incriminate, and I won’t incriminate,” she said. But she suspects that some of the children in the videos had been abducted by fighters from Al Qaeda in Alawite villages more than 150 miles away ­ a view also voiced by Syrian officials.

In a baggy brown habit, a white wimple, a black veil and rubber sandals, with a large cross around her neck, Mother Agnes described a devout life that until recently had stayed away from Middle East politics.

Born Marie Fadia Laham in Beirut, she was educated by French nuns. The death of her father when she was 15 left her asking “existential questions.”

“This led me to become a hippie,” she said with a grin.

She fell in with foreigners who came to Lebanon for the drugs ­ “Lebanese marijuana is the best in the world,” she said ­ and traveled to India and Tibet before returning to religion. At 19, she said, she became a nun in the Carmelite order, where she spent the next 22 years. Much of that was consumed by Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, during which she aided displaced families, she said.

She eventually moved to Syria, becoming the superior at the St. James monastery and overseeing a community of 3 monks and 12 nuns in the town of Qara in the Homs diocese.

The uprising that began in Syria in 2011 trickled into the monastery at first through stories told by Muslim laborers, Mother Agnes said. But she became more immersed later that year when she began her own research.

Through conversations with Syrians and clergy throughout the country, she said, she uncovered “the false flag of the Arab Spring.” Instead of a popular uprising by citizens enraged by economic stagnation and political oppression, she said, she found a conspiracy cooked up by international powers to destroy Syria.

She said the government’s brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters had been concocted by the news media, and she dismissed the slow transformation of the opposition movement into an armed uprising, saying the rebels had rushed to violence. While allowing that some protesters had good intentions, she said the conflict was driven by foreign powers, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. She pointed to Syria’s current situation, with more than 100,000 dead, bitter sectarian tensions and jihadists taking over swaths of territory, as proof that she was right all along.

“What happened is the interference of half the globe in Syrian affairs, infiltrating Syria with foreign fighters, recycling Al Qaeda and putting under threat the civilian population,” she said, adding that the world had failed Syria. “We are here, and we didn’t achieve anything. We destroyed Syria.”

She has paid a price for speaking out. This year, rebels near the monastery warned her that extremist fighters wanted to abduct her, and helped her flee, she said. She had not returned.

After the chemical attacks last month, she said, she locked herself in a hotel room in Geneva and pored over videos of the dead on her computer, sleeping only in short spurts and subsisting on water. “It was like a descent into hell,” she recalled. She said she had submitted her findings to foreign diplomats and officials with the United Nations Human Rights Council in a 50-page report that pointed out what she considered inconsistencies in the videos, and asked why there were few images of women and burials. Mr. Lavrov cited her a few days later.

Her work has also won her acclaim with Mr. Assad’s supporters. Many of them are in Syria’s Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population and has mostly stayed out of the war. Many fear that a victory by the predominately Sunni opposition would leave them with no place in the country, and have cast their lot with Mr. Assad.

“She is a patriot, she loves Syria and Christianity, she stands tall and is never afraid to tell the truth,” said a 30-year-old Christian woman reached by phone in Damascus who gave only her first name, Alissar, for security reasons.

But Sid Ahmed Hammouche, a Swiss reporter who helped write the book accusing Mother Agnes of complicity in his colleague’s death, sees her differently. “She defends the regime and plays the Christian card,” he said. “We know very well that Bashar wanted to play the Christian card, and he still does.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris, Andrew Roth from Moscow, and an employee of The New York Times from Beirut, Lebanon.

A version of this article appears in print on September 22, 2013, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: A Nun Lends a Voice of Skepticism on the Use of Poison Gas by Syria.