Nun emerges as power broker in Syria

By Diaa Hadid

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27 2013 12:42 p.m. MST

In this Oct. 29, 2013 photo, Mother Superior Agnes-Mariam Of The Cross walks with people fleeing the rebel held suburb of Moadamiyeh to the government held territory in Damascus, Syria. Amid Syria’s brutal 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 cease-fires, organizing pro-government media trips and conducting speaking tours as perhaps the country’s most prominent critic of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

Dusan Vranic, Associated Press

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 cease-fires, organizing pro-government media trips and conducting speaking tours as perhaps the country's most prominent critic of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

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

She is so despised by the opposition that 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, and she reflects the fears of many Syrians who worry that hard-line Muslim rebels trying to overthrow Assad will make life intolerable for Christians and other minorities.

The nun insists she is not an Assad propagandist, describing his family's decades-long hold over Syria as a "tumor," but she saves her harshest criticism for the rebels.

"The rebels presented themselves as the doctor who will remove this tumor," she said in a recent Skype interview. "They imposed arms as a treatment, and it is killing Syria."

Agnes-Mariam, 61, was born Fadia Laham in Lebanon to Palestinian Christian refugees. In the social upheaval of the '60s, Laham was a self-described hippie and trekked to Nepal on what she called a spiritual journey that led her to Catholicism.

She moved to Syria two decades ago, establishing a new order within the Greek Catholic Church, The Unity of Antioch, and founded the St. James convent 55 miles (90 kilometers) 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 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 the city of Homs. Officials said he was killed by rebels, while reporters accused the government. 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 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 weren't 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 to cast doubt on claims that Assad forces perpetrated the attack.

Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch said Agnes-Marie'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 that they can be ritually washed according to Islamic custom.

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