Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross speaks in Cleveland
November 15, 2013
Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, prioress of the Monastery of St. James the Mangled in Qâra, Syria, gave a talk yesterday evening at St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cleveland, titled What is Really Happening in Syria Today? I made a point of attending, having first heard about Mother Agnes-Mariam and her work a couple of months ago. In September, in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack on East Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus, she presented a report to the United Nations in Geneva, pointing out that some of the children who were shown as victims in the amateur videos that began circulating on the internet on the morning of the attack had been kidnapped by rebels two weeks earlier after a massacre by rebel forces in the town of Latakia; also, in different videos, purportedly filmed at different locations, the same dead children reappear. In brief, the children were cynically used as props. (A brief summary of the report, written by Mother Agnes-Mariam herself, along with a link to the PDF of the full report, will be found here.)
Most of Mother Agnes-Mariam’s talk yesterday centered upon the work of the organization she heads, Mussalaha (“Reconciliation”), described as “a popular movement in Syria that mediates disputes and organizes ceasefires between opposing forces.” It became clear to me, in hearing her speak, that her peace activism in Syria long preceded the incident in August that nearly brought about US airstrikes; in her talk, she described some of the more memorable incidents in which she and her organization had made a difference. She seems to have a rare ability to maintain communications with all the different sides in this war, not excluding the Al Nusra Front. (I should qualify that: she explicitly stated that the aim of her organization is to promote reconciliation among the various Syrian parties in this war; she does not negotiate with the foreign jihadists who have flocked to the country.) One of her most moving stories concerned a local meeting in (I think) Aleppo between opposing political forces; the meeting was full of mutual recriminations, and nothing was getting done. Then a man, attending the meeting, related the story of the kidnapping of his only son, named Fayyad, 20-years-old. He and his wife tried for months to secure his release. One day, he received a phone call; the voice asked, “would you like to see your son?” The father replied, “Of course, we are ready to do whatever you ask.” The voice replied that, okay, they would bring him. The father and mother were overjoyed, and anticipated meeting their son. Two days later a car drove by their house, very fast; when the parents opened the door, they found a bag containing the remains of their son Fayyad, who had been hacked into pieces. But the point of the story, as Mother Agnes-Mariam told it, was not the heinous crime as such. The man who told the story said to the warring factions that, although the death of his son was a crime without justification, a loss that had taken away his reason for living, and that, if there was anyone there who had good reason for wanting to seek revenge, it was him, he was, nevertheless, there and then, forgiving his enemies, and beseeching them all, for the good of Syria, to forgive each other. This man, as Mother Agnes-Mariam pointed out, was a Sunni Muslim. She said this, pointing out that this kind of reconciliation is open to all, and is the only way forward if Syria is to have a future.
Like a lot of people, I have been much preoccupied over the past year by what is going on in Syria; in general, I see my own government’s policies there as shameful, duplicitous, and motivated more by calculations of geopolitics than by any genuine concern for the people in that country who are suffering and dying. It is easy to become cynical about what is going on, both in Washington and in Syria itself. It is easy to despair, or to be critical. Mother Agnes-Mariam is one courageous woman who, instead of despairing about the situation, is there on the ground actively doing something about it. She is certainly critical about lies that are told to perpetuate the war; yet the focus of her effort is not there, but on the process of reconciliation which is necessary if all the various parties are to live in peace. She is going to be in the United States for the next month, raising support for her ministry; if she plans to speak in your town, I would urge you to go and hear what she has to say.