Mother Agnes has never sought fame or praise. We the monks of this monastery felt compelled to write about what Mother Agnes Mariam is doing, not to glorify her person but as proof of God’s marvelous power working through his little children who trust in Him. May Jesus be praised!
Work on the ground
Mother Agnes-Mariam and Sister Carmel – both Lebanese – quickly perceived that, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, there was a media manipulation going on that put the lives of the civilians at risk. At the beginning of November 2011, Mother Agnes-Mariam invited 16 international journalists to testify of what was really happening in Syria: they affirmed the presence of unidentified armed groups attacking civilians and security forces. Since the beginning of the conflict she hasn’t stopped testifying about this injustice and at the same she has done everything in her power to help the victims. Her testimony of the truth and her assistance to the suffering could not remain unnoticed; she quickly received threats against her life. In June 2012, she had to leave the monastery in a hurry together with sister Carmel. Her absence is a protection for her and for the other members of the community because now the Monastery is no longer necessarily a threat for the rebels. And since then they live in hiding: a great suffering for them and for us, the community here at Mar Yakub.
However, from their refuge, they haven’t ceased to engage themselves night and day for the sake of peace in Syria, for the people in distress and for the community. Mother Agnes-Mariam founded three humanitarian aid centers: one at the monastery of Mar Yakub (see picture), one at Jeramana (Damascus) and one at Khrab (Tartous). Financial assistance, food and clothes have and are being distributed in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs, with the Ministry of Health and with the Red Crescent; together with a group of volunteers, close to the monastery, who form the “team of peace and reconciliation”. Thus, more than 2 million dollars, a mobile hospital, a mobile clinic, 7 ambulances and dozens of containers were able to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Here we must thank our countless benefactors from across the world.
Mother Agnes-Mariam founded an international group of support for national reconciliation, the “mussalaha” movement. “Mussalaha” means reconciliation in Arabic. This is a priceless initiative because it aims to heal the wounds between different ethnic and religious groups through dialogue, making bridges of reconciliation rather than division. All the heads of the Syrian tribes are represented. It’s a movement of spiritual reconstruction which is very important in this time of war.
Personally mother Agnes-Mariam was able to release thousands of people taken hostage, even at the risk of her own life, as in the liberation of 5000 civilians in Maadamiyye in November 2013 [see video below]. She is recognized as the one who represents all the Syrians without distinction of religion, language or ethnic affiliation. Syrians often tenderly call her “Mama”.
Mother Agnes-Mariam has accepted invitations to testify around the world of what is really happening in Syria: in Rome, Brussels, Paris, Geneva, London, Ireland, Australia, Malaysia, the United States and South-Korea. She organized the visit of activists for peace in Syria and took part a year later in their historic pilgrimage to Iran and Syria. In her work for reconciliation, she risked her life several times, particularly in her visits to regions in conflict.
She has shared the pain of the surviving citizens of the Alawi villages of Lattakia where terrorists had perpetrated a horrible massacre and kidnapped a large number of women and children at the beginning of August 2013. Two weeks later survivors recognized their kidnapped children on professional videos that were being diffused around the world as proof that the Syrian government was gassing people. Thanks to the report that she made, mother Agnes-Mariam was able to prove that the videos were false. For this she received international recognition because the Americans were on the verge of attacking Syria from the Mediterranean based on the pretext of this use of chemical weapons. But the NY Times reported the following on September 21, 2013: “When Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, wanted to bolster his argument that rebels had carried out the poison gas attacks near Damascus on Aug. 21, he pointed to the work of a 61-year-old Lebanese-born nun who had concluded that the horrifying videos showing hundreds of dead and choking victims, including many children, had been fabricated ahead of time to provide a pretext for foreign intervention".
All this activity moved Nobel Prize laureate, Ms. Mairead Maguire, to nominate Mother Agnes Mariam for the Nobel Prize for peace 2014. The two women have worked extensively together for Syrian peace, being the first to warn the international community about Islamic terrorism in Syria two years before it exploded on the international scene under the name ISIS. Read this article-video for a good example of their cooperation.
Here we gladly refer to an excellent interview with Mother Agnes-Mariam which appeared in the Catholic Australian magazine Kairos on November 12th, 2012. We have taken over some of the content here. The article is timeless, because it reflects her spiritual vision of the conflict; furthermore the situation as displayed in the article is still actual.
Speaking as a person who has been living on the ground
in Syria, what is this war about?
There is no civil war in Syria, there are attempts to make it a civil war, there is pressure to transform the conflict into a sectarian conflict; we have lived this experience in Lebanon, we have seen it in Iraq and today we see it in Syria. Today in Syria there is no security. (…)This is our fate today in Syria: you can be abducted, you can be killed, you can be robbed, everything is possible because there is no more security. I have seen with my own eyes 100 corpses in the hospital. I saw families bringing back corpses of their father, of their brother, cut in pieces, beheaded. Why? Because he was a postman going to his office, a milkman delivering milk.
(…)The infrastructure of the country has been targeted and we have a lack of electricity, a lack of fuel, a lack of gas. People have had their houses destroyed, their stores destroyed, their crops devastated, their trees cut down, we are regressing to ground zero in Syria. It is not collateral damage. In Syria there is a clear plan of devastating everything: the country’s infrastructure, world heritage sites, even the civilian population are direct targets of the extremist mercenaries that are sent to fight, they say for freedom and democracy, but in reality they are applying an occult agenda to reduce the country to poverty and this is a scandal. [This was the situation in 2012. Today the situation is not better – on the contrary].
What is the relationship of Christians and Muslims on the ground in Syria?
Syria is a place where you have a very rich fabric of religious communities, religious families, ethnic families and cultural groups. We have lived together for centuries in mutual respect. We have never ever had any tension between Christians and Muslims; on the contrary we feel that we are part of the same country, moreover of the same Semitic family, all the descendants of Abraham.
Today with the sad events occurring in Syria there is an attempt to change this figure of general citizenship into a sectarian confrontation. The diversity in the Middle East makes possible a better understanding and better implementing of social peace and harmony. The Middle East is the cradle of civilization and should always remain an example of a place for peace and harmony in the world.
What was life like as a Christian in Syria before
March 2011 and now?
It’s like day and night. We enjoyed stability and security; we enjoyed real conviviality, all the segments of the rich fabric of society in Syria. We could go out on the street, without any fear. Syria was one of the most secure countries in the world. But today everything has changed. Instead of security we have threats, instead of stability we have chaos, instead of affordable sustainable development, we have destruction of everything, and today instead of a progressive opening of a liberal system for further liberalization we are heading towards the unknown.
Does being an eyewitness to this terrible suffering shake your faith in anyway?
The events in Syria and around the world do not shake in any way our belief in God. On the contrary, they strengthen this faith because we see how the Lord has patience and has given the right to humanity to be responsible for its own acts and to decide on their own. It means that even when my brother is committing suicide and crime, I have to help him.
When we see everything being destroyed around us the Lord says that we must stand and be firm, because our salvation is very near, we know that Jesus Christ is coming back and he is the Savior, he will be the answer for all the failures of humanity. So, when everything is falling down around us we have more faith in our vocation, we have more faith in our Savior. With this prophetic vision all around us we do not fall into despair.
How does the icon of the cross provide you with hope as you face the crisis in Syria?
My name is ‘of the cross’—the cross of Antioch. This cross is depicted in a mosaic in a cave in Nazareth and goes back to the second century. It is the cosmic cross, it symbolizes the cross that gathered the four corners of the cosmos, it gathered in unity all of humanity. As Jesus says in St John Chapter 12: “When I have been lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people towards me.”
The cross is the foundation of unity; it is the cross, the love of Jesus who loved us so much that he gave his life for us. For us the cross is not a threat even if it is terrible fate. We not only love the cross but for us the cross is the passing of the beloved.
The events in Syria are purifying Syria; even if it is bloody, there is a mercy; we believe that God is not far away in those events. And if he is passing through this fate he is fuelling this fate with his mercy in a hidden way and this fills us with hope and strength so that we can go through the events with hope and with faith. We can fuel our love and so we are engaged in a conscious way, not in a political process—the political process is a secondary process. The cross is the stairway to heaven. The cross gives us more faith because we have faith in the cross.