Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Many Faces of Agnes-Mariam of the Cross 

Two weeks ago the news broke that the Stop the War Movement had invited Asad apologist Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross to speak on the platform of their annual conference. The result was wave of outrage on Twitter and Facebook at this decision.
Twitter protests were sent to two of the key speakers – Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill apprising them of this person’s role in the Syrian conflict, and they then honourably stated that they would not speak on the same platform as Agnes-Mariam. Stop the War then announced a diplomatic “withdrawal” by Agnes-Mariam.
In the aftermath there have been two sorts of responses: on the one hand there has been a series of petty allegations directed at both Jones and Scahill over their decision, and against those who mounted the protest.
On the other hand those who objected have decided to continue the debate over Stop the War’s attitude towards the Syrian conflict (How can a real Anti-war movement be oblivious to the war being waged on the Syrian people by the Asad regime) by mounting a protest outside their 30 November meeting.
The debate over this issue has been confused by the lack of awareness (or lack of concern) on the left of Agnes-Mariam’s record. For her current international tour she has donned the persona of a concerned holy sister committed to the cause of Peace and Reconciliation in Syria. Many people on the left seem to have been taken in by this performance, so I will try to provide a documented account of what role she has actually played over the past two and a half years.
Agnes as oppositionist
In her current persona, Agnes likes to present herself as a disappointed oppositionist – as she told RT:Television: 
RT: So you were helping the opposition?
Yes, what we call the internal, civilian opposition, which does not belong to any party and is not armed. We used to have only peaceful demonstrations. In our village, we helped to free people. Also, if there was a need for humanitarian help. We even had opposition meetings in our monastery.
The civilian opposition “not belonging to any party” in the early months of the revolt against the Asad regime were the young demonstrators subject to beatings, arrests and eventually shootings, by government forces. So how much sympathy did Agnes actually show them at the time?
Virtually none: throughout this whole period she made only one statement in which expressed any concern about the repressive actions of the regime – a letter to the President in November 2011 raising the accusations made by Amnesty International that injured demonstrators were not being treated properly in hospitals. But by that point she had been heaping slander onto  the civic opposition movement for more than 6 months.
Agnes as propagandist
Her first political statement came a matter of weeks after mass protests against the regime broke out. On 1 May 2011 she wrote an article for the Voltaire Network of French conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan (who was so enamoured of Asad that he had moved his operation to Damascus).  (English translation here )
In this article she denounced the entire Arab spring as a product of U.S. manipulation (at a point when something like half a million people were demonstrating across Egypt) and extended this narrative to Syria. She alleged that all the reports of regime abuses were manufactured, retailing a story that young oppositionists were driving around in convertibles, claiming to be security personnel, and beating people up for the camera.
As the repression in Syria became increasingly bloody, Agnes’s support for the regime was unwavering. In the coming months she wrote a number of articles in the same vein for the right-wing French publication La Plume et l’enclume (The Pen and the Anvil) and for the Voltaire Network.
In August 2011 the regime decided to try and counter the bad press it was receiving by organising an orchestrated trip by a group  of foreign journalists. This involved some professional journalists from the European press, and, for insurance, a band of fringe and right wing figures from the Meyssan fold. The serious journalists were unimpressed by what they saw, so the regime had to resort to this B team to put on an “international press conference” for Syrian state television, with people like Thierry Meyssan, Marc George(France), and Webster Tarpley (a 9/11 denier from the US.). The star of this show , however,was Agnes-Mariam of the Cross.

Agnes-Mariam’s contribution claimed to be based on visits to the main centres of unrest, including Homs. She denied that there were any peaceful demonstrations there, asserting that the opposition consisted only of “armed groups killing innocent people”. She denied that the security forces were responsible for any killings, insisting that the videos of such events were staged by the opposition shooting civilians and claiming it was the work of the army.  She quoted figures of security personnel who had been killed but made no mention of civilian deaths, despite the fact that by this point almost 3 000 civilians had been killed in the repression, 1000 of them in Homs.
In Agnes-Mariam’s tale: Homs had been invaded by foreign militants who took over neighbourhoods despite the resistance of local youth, and staged attacks on demonstrators  which were then blamed on the security services. The regime and its security apparatuses emerge from Agnes tale, as in all her subsequent accounts, as  pure as the day is long.
This is what was actually happening in Homs as Agnes-Mariam delivered her false testimony.
 Western reporters were now starting to enter the country clandestinely and reporting the real situation. One of the first was the French documentary film maker Sofia Amara who also arrived in Syria in August 2011.
Amara’s reporting told a very different story to the fantasies woven by Agnes and the regime. For some clips from her extraordinary footage look here.  and here, where she filmed peaceful demonstrators in Damascus under fire from the army (“Their determination was like a miracle.”) 
Agnes-Mariam’s response to being contradicted in this way was to unleash a torrent of abuse against Amara. Using her by now well-established method, she accused Amara of having faked her entire visit to Syria.  (and presumably all her footage).
To provide some flavour of her outburst:
The Syrian army needs no one in order to take action, especially not Hezbollah which is insignificant compared with the millions of men who form its ranks and those of the other forces of order. It is the insurgents who need assistance and who cry at the top of their voices for foreign intervention , something which has earned them the complaints of prominent hardliners in the opposition. Let me say, Madame Amara, you are malevolent when you speak of the Syrian army, which is a national army , as if it were a militia. You speak in rancour and hatred when you describe in this false and hypocritical manner the hospitals whose doctors we know well, and who devote themselves consistently to the victims whoever they may be.
We seem to have here a very different Agnes-Mariam to the one who recently visited our shores – more avenging angel than evangelist of “Reconciliation” And the final sentence seems particularily strange, given that six weeks later she was to write a letter to Asad stating “I am shocked to learn from Amnesty International that in the hospitals run by the government the wounded suffer discrimination and maltreatment because of their ideology”.
Agnes as publicist
As independent reports of events in Syria began to leak out, the Syrian regime decided to change its strategy and admit journalists, but under conditions that they could closely control. Once again Agnes-Mariam was their chosen instrument, coordinating a visit to Homs by a group of francophone journalists in January 2012, including the French tv reporter Gilles. Jacquier.
Two Swiss journalists who were among this group have provided a graphic account of how she operated:
Mother Agnes-Mariam of the cross … was the Franco-Lebanese nun organising this trip by the press. Our first surprise: we only had a visa for 4 days. Mother Agnes, very much at ease with the security services, reassured us that we would be given free rein “in order to expose western Goebbels-Atlantic propaganda”  … However the security forces were everywhere and the smallest demonstration by the revolutionaries was supressed in blood. Even figures from the regime were under surveillance and reluctant to speak. Evidence that Bashar’s system was teetering. Another problem: Mother Agnes had imposed a guard dog on Gilles in the form of a young Lebanese women who was supposed to be a translator but acted like a little Syrian soldier. All the promises made by the nun collapsed one by one. We were supposed to be free but discovered that we were expected to stay together as a group and could not move around until we received a green light from the Ministry of Information, whose officials were never available. Only the Lebanese in the group, including Mother Agnes, were able to contact them.
Jacquier was killed in Homs on the 11 of January in an unexplained incident. (Two other jounralists, Remie Olchik and Marie Colvin, dies in a separate incident in February.)
This ended Agnes’s career as a publicist and seems to changed her attitude towards the press: during a visit to Ireland she is reported to have said “The reason the media was being denied easy access to Syria currently was because in the Libyan conflict journalists placed electronic devices for Nato in rooms used at press conferences in that country, So Syria didn’t want journalists” (Irish Times 13 August 2012)
Agnes as apologist
Agnes continued to support the regime as it drove to militarise the conflict, launching an all-out bombardment of opposition areas of Homs in February 2012, taking the civilian death toll to 2700 in that city, and 6700 across the country. For a description of events in Homs at this time see this report.  and this dispatch from Mary Colvin,  killed shortly afterwards. 
In May 2012 the Syrian regime was faced with a further compromising situation, when over 100 residents of the village of Taldou near the town of Houla were ruthlessly butchered the night after an army bombardment. Local opposition activists blamed the massacre on regime paramilitaries shabiha) Once again, it was Agnes-Mariam who rushed to the rescue – not of the villagers, but the regime. She produced an account in which the Syrian army did not shell Taldou, and the massacre was perpetrated by opposition forces who transported the bodies to a mosque in Houla in order that they could claim that the regime forces were responsible (For some reason in Agnes’ stories people are always moving things around for reasons that are not always clear)

This story was briefly given credence by a western journalist from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But it suffered from a series of fatal flaws – the most crucial of which was the claim that the victims were members of the Shia sect. Subsequent investigation by three different media sources confirmed that this was untrue.  The story collapsed at this point and was definitively buried in August 2012 when the UNHuman Rights Council Commission on Syria reported that “The commission found that Government forces and shabbiha members were responsible for the killings in Al-Houla“.
But that did not satisfy Agnes. As she told an Irish audience “Most news reports from Syria were forged, with only one side emphasised, she said. This also applied to the UN, whose reports were one-sided and not worthy of that organisation.” (Irish Times 12 August 2012)

In July  2013 Agnes made a video entitled "An appeal for Peace and Reconciliation" – in it she calls calls on NGOs not to provide aid to the refugee camps outside Syria because they contain "the families of fighters" and the aid will be used to buy weapons. (see 2:00 onwards). This gives some idea of what her concept of ”Reconciliation" amounts to.
The Ghouta Tragedy
When the chemical weapons attack on the people of Ghouta took place in August 2013, the regime did not have to look far to find an apologist to muddy the waters. Agnes promptly issued a statement raising a series of objections to the video material posted by local activists (many of whom died in the effort to bring the reality to the world) and went on to put her name to a 50-page report detailing these charges, published under the auspices of an Iranian-sponsored NGO.  (Downloadable here.)
Working once more in Meyssan mode, the Report claims that the videos shot on the day of the attack are not genuine and makes the strange claim that many of the child victims are not from Ghouta but are Alawites kidnapped a few says earlier in Latakia, and transported across the country. It also relies on the hoary canard that the videos were posted on the internet before the attack – an elementary error made by people who do not understand time zones. The arguments in her report have been refuted one by one by Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch  
And the report shows just how fast and loose she plays with “facts”: she writes “East Ghouta has been under massive attack by the Syrian army since more than one year, very few people still live there, most of them are the families of the insurgents.” (p.10) Yet a bare 6 weeks later she is standing in front of tv cameras and claiming credit for the evacuation of thousands (she claims 7000) people from just one of these “empty” cities – Muadhamiya.
Since the publication of her report, Agnes has made public statements insisting that she isn’t denying that the attack took place, and isn’t accusing the rebels of staging it. So what is she saying? I suspect that not even she knows any longer.
But that hasn’t stopped her from making the outrageous demand, repeated  in the course of a recent public meeting in London, that the bodies of the Ghouta children should be exhumed and subjected to DNA tests - all in order to indulge her fantasies.
That is the real face of Agnes-Mariam.

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