‘Assad’s nun’: Catholic becomes controversial and unlikely power broker in Syrian civil war

BEIRUT — Amid Syria’s ferocious civil war, a nun has emerged as an unlikely power broker and figure of controversy.

Mother Superior Agnes-Mariam of the Cross has thrust herself into the role of go-between and publicist, arranging ceasefires, organizing pro-government media trips and conducting speaking tours as perhaps the country’s most prominent critic of the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad.

Anti-government activists scathingly call her “Assad’s nun” for claiming a chemical attack that killed hundreds was exaggerated, and saying rebels used kidnapped babies in massacres that were blamed on Syrian forces.

She is so despised by the opposition even acts of seeming goodwill are criticized, such as arranging a rare truce that allowed thousands to leave a blockaded town.

Supporters see her as a brave truth-teller. She also reflects the fears of many Syrians who worry hard-line Muslim rebels will make life intolerable for Christians and other minorities.

The nun insists she is not an Assad propagandist, describing his family’s decades-long rule as a “tumour,” but she saves her harshest criticism for the rebels.

“The rebels presented themselves as the doctor who will remove this tumour,” she said. “They imposed arms as a treatment, and it is killing Syria.”

Mother Agnes-Mariam, 61, was born Fadia Laham in Lebanon to Palestinian Christian refugees. She moved to Syria two decades ago, establishing a new order in the Greek Catholic Church, the Unity of Antioch, and founded the St. James convent 90 kilometres north of Damascus.

The nun was skeptical of the 2½-year-old Syrian uprising from the start.

She claimed much of the footage of anti-Assad demonstrations posted to social media networks was faked, along with video of Syrian forces beating and killing protesters

The Syrian government heavily restricts foreign reporting on the fighting. But Mother Agnes-Mariam organized pro-government media tours, using her connections to obtain visas for journalists.

During a January 2012 tour, French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier was killed in a mortar attack in Homs. Officials said he was killed by rebels, while reporters accused the government. Mother Agnes-Mariam said she was unfairly blamed.

In May 2012, after Assad-loyal forces massacred dozens of Sunni men, women and children in the Houla region, she claimed the slain children were Alawites — members of Mr. Assad’s sect — who had been kidnapped by rebels.

She made a similar claim after hundreds of civilians were killed in a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. In a 50-page report, she said the children were probably kidnapped because their mothers were not in the videos that activists uploaded to YouTube. She also claimed some videos were faked so victims would appear more numerous.

Her report was cited by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to cast doubt on claims Mr. Assad’s forces perpetrated the attack.

‘The rebels presented themselves as the doctor who will remove this tumour. They imposed arms as a treatment, and it is killing Syria’

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said the nun’s allegations were “based on bizarre theories about bodies being moved.” He said it is normal for the bodies of men and women to be separated so they can be ritually washed according to Islamic custom.

Most recently, Mother Agnes-Mariam surprised reporters in late October by appearing in her black habit and white wimple outside the rebel-held town of Moadamiyeh, where she brokered a truce allowing residents to be evacuated from the besieged area.

The nun said she got involved after seeing photographs of starving Moadamiyeh children on her Facebook feed. “I said, ‘This doesn’t happen in Syria.’”

She contacted government and security officials she knew from decades of interfaith outreach. She said she gradually built up her connections through her “pushy” personality and constant lobbying, saying people found it hard to refuse a nun.

The truce failed several times, but over a period of several days 5,000 people were evacuated.

George Kallas, an official at the Beirut-based Greek Catholic Patriarchate, which oversees Mother Agnes-Mariam’s convent, would not comment directly on her work and said her statements do not reflect the opinion of the Greek Catholic Church.

The nun is now on a speaking tour of North America — she will speak in Richmond Hill, Ont., Dec. 1 — and Britain. But she withdrew from an anti-war conference in London after other speakers threatened to quit.