War time

Since the beginning of the crisis in the spring of 2011, Mother Agnes Mariam and sister Carmel, who lived the war in Lebanon – and the media manipulation during that conflict – quickly understood that here in Syria the riots of the ‘Arab spring’ [1] had a false character and that international interests where the real motor behind the starting conflict. Our community, since the beginning, has taken a position of truth towards the problems in Syria, which has earned us a lot of criticism and also praise, especially to our superior, Mother Agnes-Mariam, who has become an international spokeswoman of the Syrian people and the Eastern Christians. She and Sr. Carmel travel periodically around the world to testify about the horrors committed here. When travelling in Syria – often scorning the danger for their own lives – they help the local refugees and displaced people by organizing food distributions, by working together with the existing help organizations such as the red crescent, by helping to create employment with the assistance of local committees, by interceding for kidnapped people, by giving financial and medical aid to the poorest,… We here in the Monastery support their heroic efforts with our prayers and our work. In this article we will focus on our daily life inside the Monastery walls.

Life after the beginning of the events in 2011 and forced departure of Mother Agnes

We used to receive numerous visitors (in the summer months up to several hundred a day and up to 25 000 on a yearly basis) and residents[2] who spent several weeks or even several months with us. We also used to welcome many groups from different European countries who spent retreats here in the summer months. When, at the onset of the conflict, the roads became increasingly dangerous the flow of visitors slowly but surely disappeared. I remember that at that moment Sister Carmel told us, “The Lord is giving us time to be alone with Him”, this in contrast with the heavy - but very gratifying - work that accompanied the flux of visitors. 


We welcomed our last European visitor in the spring of 2012. Around that time daily visits of Syrian tourists became very rare. Things got so bad that in June 2012 Mother Agnes Mariam had to flee the Monastery in answer to the growing amount of threats against her life. At that time she was doing a research on the nature of the conflict and discovered that armed groups, funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar with American and European assistance, were roaming around the country, randomly killing civilians[3], kidnapping, looting, destroying the country’s infrastructure, churches and mosques. This terror was something which was unseen in Syria, and yet was not being reported in the International Media. Their goal was – and still is – to destabilize Syria to the benefit of foreign countries, they seek to capitalize on gas and oil resources, and especially to break the self-sufficiency that the Syrian economy had achieved over the years. Syria was targeted because it has good relations with Russia, China, and Iran. When she revealed this truth to the international media she became a threat – her story didn’t jive with the main stream propaganda. Also, her efforts to relieve the people in need were frowned upon. She thus was forced to leave the monastery. Sister Carmel accompanied her.


In the monastery we began living in a time of increasing isolation where we organized different places of refuge to protect ourselves, it became impossible to go outside. Luckily we were always assisted by faithful friends and resident families who provided us with our daily needs. In the summer of 2012 refugees from the village of Al Qusayr joined us; a beautiful family who lives with us in the new building. They have been eager to help us in farming and to take an active role in the humanitarian ‘Team of Love and Peace’. In 2013 the monastery suffered from hits from the Syrian army which damaged our front door, roof and rooms.


The situation in the village became increasingly tense. The Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra had taken virtual control of Qara. Police and army had long since left leaving our town to become a place of refuge for rebels, most of whom came from Homs our Al Qusayr. Result: the village’s population increased from 20 000 inhabitants to 80 000. Under their dominion the town was left to itself, only to be protected by God and his angels; occasional kidnappings, murders and harassment occurred. That being said our town hasn’t suffered as other areas where these horrors happen daily. Also the Free Syrian Army isn’t ISIS: nowadays there are areas in the country which are totally controlled by ISIS, there Muslims live under Sharia law: people are forced to shut their shops to go pray 5 times a day, women cannot go out without being escorted by men, wearing normal clothing is illegal, they’ve cut off hands for stealing, they’ve turned churches into torture centers, and done many unspeakable crimes against God’s beautiful children …


17th of November 2013

In mid-November 2013 the Syrian army scheduled to enter Qara (our village) to purge it. This was part of a wider program of the Syrian army to liberate the Qalamun area (the mountainous region around us). Huddled together in a secure place of the Monastery we awaited the storm. We gathered food and water just in case – and in no time we had also installed an extra toilet so we wouldn't have to vacate too far from the place of refuge. After having suffered a big hit from a rocket not far above our heads we decided to change shelters. Our friends surveying the premises came in and out to tell us how the situation was evolving: “The army is hitting hard (…) refugees are gathering in the new building (...) the rebels are now in the garden”, all this seasoned with heavy bombings and sounds of mortars and machine guns.


Saturday 16th of November: We were praying constantly in our shelter; calming down the children and the refugees who had gathered around us. We weren't overcome by fear; there was a serene peace and a sense of protection that reigned within the monastery walls.


At that point the village was virtually empty, all had fled: from 80 000 the population dropped to a couple of dozen. We then also decided to leave the monastery in the uncertainty of what was going to happen. Father Daniel gave us the general absolution and the viaticum; we set out to flee in two cars. We waited for about half an hour, but then they told us that the roads were too dangerous. Inwardly we were consoled that the Lord wanted us to stay: fleeing would have meant leaving the monastery to its destruction.


Sunday 17th of November: Around noon we celebrated mass under a deafening rumble of bombings. We thought these were our last moments. In the meanwhile a makeshift kitchen had been organized by Sister Claire-Marie who brought us food and drink. Around 11 o’clock in the evening we all shared our experiences on how we lived these difficult moments in our little shelter and wrote them down in the uncertainty of the outcome. We continued praying. At 2 o’clock at night we went to sleep only to wake up a few hours later under very heavy bombings.  We immediately gathered to continue praying. Then, at around 6.30 am a man dripping from the autumn rain entered our shelter … He exclaimed: “It’s done, the village has been freed!!” His name was Ruh Allah, Spirit of God.


Later on we found out that the monastery hadn’t been destroyed by the army (for they thought rebels had taken it over) because they saw little children running around from afar in the big entrance court outside. These were children from refugees who had taken shelter in our new building. Seeing the youngsters the army decided to approach the monastery step by step, instead of destroying it by force. The monastery was really in the line of fire, being the last stronghold between the village, which had been rapidly freed after the army entered, and the mountains that housed the rebels. Thanks be to Jesus!


After the battle the village became a ghost town. Abandoned farms housed thousands of animals that were dying of thirst (Qara is an agricultural town). There was no more electricity; water became scarce. The few people that were around started looting. There was the risk for the dying animals to cause serious diseases; huge swarms of flies started to infest the village.  

Then a group, made up out of Christian and Muslim volunteers gathered around the monastery to meet the villagers’ basic needs. They went around gathering the abandoned cattle in the monastery garden, often dodging bullets; walking multiple kilometers with the animals tied to a rope. Our little garden thus became a little farm housing 70 sheep and goats and 5 cows (the animals were returned to their owners when the situation calmed down). At the same time they distributed food-and health packages that were brought in via Mother Agnes Mariam. These acts of charity stimulated the people to come back to their houses. After about 6 months the village regained its original population of 20 000 inhabitants.


Here in the monastery our water reservoirs ran out but we were able to drink the water from our wells after boiling it. Luckily the cows in the little garden gave us milk in abundance.


As we live today


Now [at the time of writing] we’re about 18 months later. Our life is coming back to normal. We have practically repaired all the damage the monastery suffered. We continue to assure humanitarian aid in the Qalamun area and in Damascus.  We farm our lands, paint icons and celebrate the liturgy as before. The increasing security permits Mother Agnes Mariam and Sister Carmel to perform surprise visits – a great consolation for us and for them. Tourists, even from Europe, are coming back like drops in an empty bucket. But the country’s needs are high; the war isn’t finished. Our prayers go out to all those who live in daily fear, who have lost loved ones, who live on the streets, who suffer hunger and thirst, and exposure …


Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on the Syrian victims! Continue to bless your beloved Syria. Amen.


[1] In our village, youngsters – often people not from here – used to gather daily in front of the main mosque shouting anti-government slogans. At the onset their numbers were very small, 10 to 15 people. The protest gradually grew to about 50-100 people. Their mobile phone videos where then heavily portrayed on Al-Jazeera, BBC Arabic and other mainstream media saying that the Syrian government was about to fall any day now. The same scenario was visible all throughout the country. Several times these channels diffused riots that supposedly had taken place in Damascus portraying mobile phone videos – of the lowest quality, the frame moving in all directions so no one could really see what was going on – displaying men shouting in anger. When contacting our friends in Damascus they used to tell us that on that particular square there had not been any protest that day, that everything had been calm. One day in 2011 Mother Agnes Mariam was in the Greek Melkite Patriarchate of Damascus where she gave condolences to a priest from a town which she had seen on TV the day before being attacked by army tanks on Al Jazeera. The priest told her: “What are you talking about, nothing happened in our town!?” 

[2] “Residents” are people who fully partake in the Monastery life without having any obligation to become a monk or a sister.

[3] These murders were [and are] done in the most horrific manner. Beheading, or cutting in pieces is the most practiced technique.