Mother Agnès-Mariam and the Houla Massacre

Last week, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi & Phillip Smyth, writing at the conservative National Review, took a sceptical look at claims that the Houla massacre in Syria had been perpetrated by anti-Assad rebels, rather than by the regime. Their article includes a discussion of Mother Agnès-Mariam de la-Croix, of the St. Jacques-le-Mutilé Monastery in Syria:

…Mother Agnès-Mariam often assumes the slick veneer of a moderate; she even wrote an open letter to Assad about the condition of people affected by the fighting in Syrian hospitals. It’s hard not to conclude that Mother Agnès-Mariam is little more than another Assad propagandist using her religious credentials to push a particular narrative.

According to the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier, Agnès-Mariam was “comfortable among [Assad’s] security services,” and she told their reporter it was hoped he could “dismantle the propaganda of Western media.” Thierry Meyssan also conducted a revealing interview with Mother Agnès-Mariam about Middle Eastern Christians. During the interview, the mother superior repeated the typically farcical Assad line that the dictator was truly trying to “reform.”

Agnès-Mariam told Meyssan that she “deplored the fact that the so-called opponents didn’t accept President Bashar Al-Assad’s invitation to debate with him the series of reforms which he is in the process of carrying out.” (Of course, it would be of no consequence to the sister (who never recanted her earlier statements) that in leaked private e-mails Assad told his wife, “We are going to adopt [a plan that left him in power] instead of the rubbish laws of parties, elections, media [i.e., actual democratic reforms].”)

Mother Superior Agnès-Mariam continued by claiming that the opposition was just a puppet in a conspiracy guided by foreign powers. She also proffered the Assad narrative of Arabism, arguing that Middle Eastern Christians are truly Arabs. Many Middle Eastern Christians (including Eastern Catholics such as the Chaldeans and Maronites) have not adopted the Arab identity, but Arabism is part and parcel of Assad’s own ideology.

That last paragraph is off-base; there is in fact a sizable historic body of Arab Christians, and this has nothing to do with “Arabism” or “Assad’s ideology”. However, the quotes highlighted by the NR do undermine Agnès-Mariam’s credibility, and it doesn’t help that her interviewer, Thierry Meyssan, is reportedly “a well-known French 9/11 conspiracy theorist who believes that the Beslan Massacre in Russia… was actually planned and directed by the CIA and the U.S. government.” The journalists at  Le Courrier appear to have been particularly wary of the nun, asking “A quel jeu joue la religieuse Agnès-Mariam?”

More recently, Agnès-Mariam has claimed that

People told us that they have seen militias carrying out from the national hospital in Taldou corpses on blankets of the Ministry of Health, carrying them to assemble them in a mosque.

Once again, highly dramatic and potentially game-changing information on a matter of world-wide interest: yet she provides no evidence, or even a named source.

This article from Vatican Insider (which is among the sources linked to by NR) has a general account of Agnès-Mariam’s background:

Daughter of a Palestinian who fled from Nazareth in 1948, mother Agnès-Mariam was born in Lebanon in a refugee camp. Still an adolescent in the Beirut of the late Sixties (“that of the best cannabis”, she recounts), she, too, joins the flower children and starts to travel through Europe. Until in Copenhagen she will find herself in a Catholic church, and from there a journey began that in 1971 would bring her to enter into the Carmel of Beirut. She feels, however, that her journey is not yet entirely complete; until – in the Eighties, restoring an icon damaged by the war that in the meantime has bloodied Lebanon – she discovers behind an image of the Virgin a photo of the Church of Antioch. It becomes a kind of revelation: she begins to study the history of the ancient Syrian Christian communities. And in 1994 – with the consent of the mother superior and local bishop – she moves to  Qâra, in Syria, to breathe new life into an ancient monastery of the sixth century that lies in disuse. 

Syria Today reviewed the site in 2008:

Tucked away in the small village of Qara near the Lebanese border sits Deir Mar Yaqoub (St Jacob’s Monastery), an unimposing holy site housing a tumultuous and bloody history.

These days Mar Yaqoub is a sanctuary of peace and quiet some 100km north of Damascus, offering stunning views of the Anti-Lebanon mountains and providing an ideal getaway from the hustle and bustle of Damascus. The humble monastery has housed a variety of holy figures and witnessed a number of unholy massacres – stories which the lively nuns of the Antioch United monastic community living at Mar Yaqoub are eager to relay.

“Antioch United” refers to the monastery’s membership of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church; this church follows Orthodox forms of worship but is part of the Catholic church and is hence known as a “Uniate” church.

The Melkite Patriarch, Gregoire III Laham, has also spoken out on current the situation in Syria, complaining that:

…”Today in Syria we can no longer speak of a government-opposition division. There is a third element: the criminals who roam freely, taking advantage of the situation. They hide behind the opposition and they exploit both the lack of armed forces and the absence of U.N. observers.”

…”The Syrian government is tied up and swept away by the international politics. Without any serious investigation, they claim the government perpetrates massacres and bombs civilians. Meanwhile, the barbarous acts by the insurgents pass by without a word.”

“There is a legitimate government who must govern,” the patriarch said. “If it is destroyed, there will be nothing to replace it. Unfortunately, we see that the international community aims to make the situation worse, divide Syria and provoke conflict. By arming and supporting forces that are out of control we are pushing the country towards more violence, terror and bloodshed.”

“I address the international community: save Syria,” he said.

The claim that the Houla massacre was staged by rebels has received currency in anti-war circles following the publication of an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungBill Weinberg at World War 4 Report notes one example of take-up:

The World Socialist Website writes that the “Houla massacre was perpetrated by opposition forces aligned with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), according to Germany’s leading daily newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.” They don’t even bother to link to the article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, but the text makes clear it is all based on anonymous unverifiable sources. It also offers little speculation on the motives of the FSA to kill the people they hope to win over, other than the claim that some of the victims were recent converts to Shia.

We don’t claim to know what happened at Houla, but it is eminently clear that the World Socialist Website is touting this report not because it is more credible than the findings of Amnesty International and the United Nations, but—exclusively—because it is convenient to “anti-war” propaganda. Amnesty did not back up the claims of the Syrian opposition that the pro-Assad Shabiha militia killed many of the victims at close range in house-to-house raids, but the consensus of the very human rights groups that vigorously documented US atrocities in Iraq and Gitmo is that the Houla massacre was the work of the regime.

Indeed, numerous named eyewitnesses – as opposed to Agnès-Mariam’s unnamed sources –  have confirmed that the massacre was the work of the regime.

Name variation: Agnès-Maryam