A Carmelite nun, actively involved in humanitarian work in Syria, rejects violence from all sides, government or insurgents. For Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, “If things continue this way, I fear the worse.” Meanwhile, the Arab League decided in Cairo yesterday to maintain and reinforce its observer mission as reports speak about more deaths and daily clashes between armed groups.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Arab League has decided to keep its 67 observers in Syria. Ahmed al-Dabi, who heads the mission, presented his observations but not a final report to the League’s foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday. The representatives of Saudi Arabia and Qatar called for the withdrawal of the mission and greater pressure on the Syrian regime. However, the League decided instead to maintain the mission and reinforce its technical and financial capacity.
The League also appealed to “the Syrian government and all armed groups to immediately stop all acts of violence”. In a draft of its final statement, it urged, in veiled criticism, the opposition to cooperate with the mission. In fact, Arab League observers feel harassed by the government but also by its opponents who want to see the mission fail.
Increasingly, the evidence points to open warfare between the regular army and deserters. The number of casualties is rising, including the truth as well as civilians who are victims of a conflict fought over their heads.
Christians are also victims of the polarisation, timid when it comes to complain about the violence perpetrated by the Assad regime, but also fearful of a future in the hands of Islamic extremists. This is what Carmelite nun, Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, says in her interview with noted journalist Fady Noun, which we publish below.
The Arab spring is a complex phenomenon. It is a social revolution, a demographic and cultural shift, a revolt against dictatorships and a media war. As such, the current struggle in Syria is absolutely unbalanced, and the Syrian regime is well aware of it. At an official level, we are in the presence of a sclerotic communication system based only on propaganda. On the other hand, we have a sophisticated system set up in a hurry without outside aid but effective. It is a system of expanding media links that operates in a circle based on mobile phones, social Websites and satellite networks. We must also add the diplomatic and political networks of Western powers, Gulf states, Turkey and the United Nations.
However, the civilian population in this country of 23 million has been forgotten. As usual, a silent majority stands on the sidelines, not taking sides, a passive and powerless witness to what active minorities do with violence to their destiny. Is it an armed insurrection? The population is being used as a human shield between the two sides. The cruelty to which it is subjected gets more intolerable by the day. Civilians are the first victims of sanctions. There is no fuel and the winter is harsh. International isolation means that tourism is the most cruelly affected with thousands of jobs lost.
Since it is impossible to determine independently how many people have died in the Syrian revolution, it is clear that whatever one side one is on, a helpless people is caught in-between the masked violence associated with Takfir Islamism (radical and violent Muslims), which could be the product of cynical manipulation, and the brutal and unanimously condemned repression of the regime. The United Nations speaks about 5,000 dead, a number provided by the opposition that cannot be verified in the absence of a credible list of victims.
Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, superior of a convent near Qara, 90 kilometres from Damascus, had decided to fight on two fronts. She wants to show the disinformation coming some media outlets on the revolution and the barbarities of the system Syrians are trying to overthrow.
Taking a position between the two sides is hard to keep, and Mother Agnès-Mariam has been accused of playing into the hands of the dictatorship, a charge she rejects totally.
She did accompany journalists in Syria who rebutted mainstream media coverage of the events. But she also helped bring ABCNews star broadcast journalist Barbara Walters who gave President Bashar al-Assad a hard time.
In order to make the figures of the death toll credible, she asked the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) run by Ramy Abdel to provide her with the names of the victims he has mentioned for months, but he refused.
“Although the number of casualties is hard to establish, we must note that the number provided by the Observatory is a possible manipulation,” the nun said. “For instance, after I spoke out, the SOHR announced the death of 30 people in Syria even though credible hospital sources gave the names of only three people.”
As an example of disinformation, Mother Agnès-Mariam mentioned a report by the al-Jazeera network, filmed in Homs, which shows a child killed in cold blood. Syrian security forces are blamed for shooting the boy during a peaceful demonstration. The report shows Sari Saoud’s mother crying in front of her dead son, saying, “Security forces committed this crime”.
“We know this woman,” Mother Agnès-Mariam said. She “is the niece of a stone cutter, Abu Tony Jammal, who works at the monastery. What the woman said in fact, ‘If security forces had been here, her son would not have been killed.”
However important Agnès-Mariam’s concern for the truth may be, it is secondary to her humanitarian involvement with civilians, a task that is unpopular because it is apolitical and so unwelcome by either side.
The superior of the Qara convent wrote an open letter to President Bashar al-Assad (published on 5 November by L’Orient-Le Jour) in which she calls for an independent mission to visit hospitals and an ad hoc committee to monitor the situation of prisoners locked up indefinitely in Syrian prisons.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross made an inquiry in hospitals. The great problem is that this organisation does not release reports. It is necessary not to cover up crimes and for this reason, a full list of victims and prisoners is needed at the level of the state and the opposition. I obtained a list prepared by the Syrian Red Crescent Society, but not from the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights led by the man based in London, which is cited everywhere as the sole source of information in this area.”
“Official services must of course account for all the victims, not only those of the security forces, but the opposition too can no longer hide behind nameless numbers. Since opposition armed groups have become internationally recognised, it is important that these groups be held responsible for possible violations of human rights as much as the Syrian regime they are fighting against,” Mother Agnès-Mariam said.
The Carmelite nun has reservations about what the press calls the Free Syrian Army. She questions the behaviour of men who resemble militias or armed bands who feel they can do whatever they want. Each day, representatives of civil organisations must deal with them to gain the safe return of civilians taken as hostages.
“On Christmas Eve, Takfir groups in Homs told Christians they could not show the symbols of their celebration. The civilian population is left to itself with police unable to protect it. Accounts are being settled under the cover of the revolutionary struggle. People who refuse to take a stance are accused of treason; they names are placed on black lists drawn up by revolutionary committees and posted on Facebook. These lists endanger the lives of the people named, who become priority targets for what is called the armed wing of the revolution.”
“The opposition is glorified but let us not be naïve,” Mother Agnès-Mariam explained. “The initially pure call for revolution has been quickly deformed by foreign interferences, or hijacked by certain parties and organisations. In its initial drive, the revolution showed the suffering of the people at the hands of a police system for whom the end justified the means. In order to eliminate the regime, false imbalances have been put forward. An attempt is underway to destabilise a society that is certainly under a police state but which favoured, despite its problems, a sense of national affiliation over other forms of identities. It is no longer a revolution, but a regression.”
Mother Agnès-Mariam is afraid not only of the excesses of the Islamists but also of a “fifth column” that is manipulating everyone. “Christians stopped going to the demonstrations when meetings began to be held in mosques and when Islamic slogans were shouted. We also came to realise that during peaceful demonstrations a fifth column was shooting on both camps.” In fact, “Attacks alternatively targeted Alawites and Sunnis to intensify hatreds as was the case in Iraq between Shias and Sunnis.
For the nun, someone is trying to push Syria towards a civil and confessional war. “More than 200 Christians were killed in the Homs area. They were not confessional crimes but cynical acts designed to discourage Christians from staying neutral in the ongoing conflict.”
However, Mother Agnès-Mariam’s criticism of disinformation and fear of “occult forces” have not prevented her from slamming Syria’s dictatorial regime. Since repression of the opposition is a common staple of the media campaign, she does not focus on it even though she does call for international observers. “Demonstrations I have attended were peaceful and were not disrupted by the security forces.” Yet, the intelligence services, the Mukhabarat, have committed acts of cruelty, she said.
“The regime has always relied on the intelligence services to spy on people. Whether for legitimate (like smuggling) or other reasons, people can be arrested. When this happens, the whole family suffers. The Mukhabarat has a free hand not only to arrest people but also members of their family, or even, in some cases, people visiting the family.”
People are beaten up (she avoids the word torture) to extract a confession, rightly or wrongly. “The circle closes then. Once you confessed, you are forgotten indefinitely in prison. No one dares ask about you and the intelligence services feel they need not account for you, even to the justice system.”
For Mother Agnès-Mariam, there are many political prisoners in Syria and many people have been arbitrarily jailed. The boldest have called on the justice system to investigate them and are prepared to pay for their crime as long as they do not rot in prison.
Many mothers in Qara, where her convent is located, want her to intervene to get their relatives out. Asking for the assistance of NGOs, especially Catholic NGOs, to help inmates, let alone reform Syria’s prisons, is an uphill battle.
She is outraged by the fact that some of the people wounded in demonstrations experience discrimination in hospitals. In fact, some have been coldly liquidated, so that makeshift dispensaries have been set up for those who fear a visit by the intelligence services (Mukhabarat) to their hospital bed.
For Mother Agnès-Mariam, the future is bleak. She wants to believe that the reforms promised by the government may bring change. However, she is tormented by what she has seen. After accompanying 16 journalists across Syria and visiting the hell of Homs, where she spent a night in a gang-infested Sunni area in the central part of the city, she fears the worse.
The nun, who says she is “the voice of those who have no voice or international sponsors,” is saddened by the fact that only one side in the conflict is blamed internationally. For her, it is important to understand that violence is not unilateral. “This barbaric and blind violence against the Syrian people is the first enemy of the revolution and the best ally of the every dictatorship.”