A Nun Lends a Voice of Deniability to Syria on the Use of Poison Gas

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ADONIS, Lebanon -- 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.

"Mr. Lavrov is an intelligent person," said the nun, Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, with a wide smile in a recent interview in this Lebanese mountain town. "He will never stick his name to someone who is saying stupidities."

Mother Agnes, who had lived in Syria for years, has no expertise or training in chemical weapons forensics or filmmaking, and although she was in Damascus at the time of the attacks, she did not visit the sites or interview victims. Still, her assertions -- she does not say which side made the videos -- have significantly raised her once modest profile as the longtime superior of the Monastery of St. James the Mutilated, a Melkite Greek Catholic monastery in central Syria.

Now, she is lauded by supporters of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, for championing narratives that resemble his own, and vilified by opposition activists who suspect the government supports her work as an unofficial ambassador.

International rights groups see Mr. Lavrov's reference to the work of an untrained nun as a sign of desperation.

"The fact that the Russian government is relying on this woman's assessment of what happened just shows the lack of evidence for their case," said Lama Fakih, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch. "She is not a military expert."

There are other shadows around Mother Agnes. She has helped foreign journalists obtain visas, suggesting trust by the government. The widow and two colleagues of Gilles Jacquier, a French journalist killed in Homs last year, published a book in which they suggest that she conspired in a lethal trap set by the government.

She has sued them for libel, denied any link to the government and has not spoken out in support of Mr. Assad himself. She criticized Syria for its occupation of Lebanon that ended in 2005 and said that government helicopters had struck near the St. James monastery three times, causing damage. Her only interest, she said, was what is best for Syrians -- she said that would be for outside powers not to interfere so that Syrians can solve their problems.

"It is not politics," she said. "This is humanitarian."

She refused to say who she thought had made the videos she called fakes, or who she thought had carried out the attacks. "I cannot incriminate, and I won't incriminate," she said. But she suspects that some of the children in the videos had been abducted by fighters from Al Qaeda in Alawite villages more than 150 miles away -- a view also voiced by Syrian officials.

In a baggy brown habit, a white wimple, a black veil and rubber sandals, with a large cross around her neck, Mother Agnes described a devout life that until recently had stayed away from Middle East politics.

Born Marie Fadia Laham in Beirut, she was educated by French nuns. The sudden death of her father when she was 15 left her asking "existential questions."

"This led me to become a hippie," she said with a grin.

She fell in with foreigners who came to Lebanon for the drugs -- "Lebanese marijuana is the best in the world," she noted -- and traveled to India and Tibet before returning to religion. At 19, she said, she became a nun in the Carmelite order, where she spent the next 22 years. Much of that was consumed by Lebanon's 15-year civil war, during which she aided displaced families, she said.

She eventually moved to Syria, becoming the superior at the St. James monastery and overseeing a community of 3 monks and 12 nuns in the town of Qara in the Homs diocese.

The uprising that began in Syria in 2011 trickled into the monastery at first through stories told by Muslim laborers, Mother Agnes said. But she became more immersed later that year, when she began her own research.

Through conversations with Syrians and clergy throughout the country, she said, she uncovered "the false flag of the Arab Spring." Instead of a popular uprising by citizens enraged by economic stagnation and political oppression, she said, she found a conspiracy cooked up by international powers to destroy Syria.

She said the government's brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters had been concocted by the news media, and she dismissed the slow transformation of the opposition movement into an armed uprising, saying the rebels had rushed to violence. While allowing that some protesters had good intentions, she said the conflict was driven by foreign powers, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. She pointed to Syria's current situation, with more than 100,000 dead, bitter sectarian tensions and jihadists taking over swaths of territory, as proof that she was right all along.

"What happened is the interference of half the globe in Syrian affairs, infiltrating Syria with foreign fighters, recycling Al Qaeda and putting under threat the civilian population," she said, adding that the world had failed Syria. "We are here and we didn't achieve anything. We destroyed Syria."

She has paid a price for speaking out. This year, rebels near the monastery warned her that extremist fighters wanted to abduct her, and helped her flee, she said. She had not returned.

After the chemical attacks last month, she said, she locked herself in a hotel room in Geneva and pored over videos of the dead on her computer, sleeping only in short spurts and subsisting on water. "It was like a descent into hell," she recalled. She said she submitted her findings to foreign diplomats and officials with the United Nations Human Rights Council in a 50-page report that pointed out what she considered inconsistencies in the videos, and asked why there were few images of women and burials. Mr. Lavrov cited her a few days later.

Her work has also won her acclaim with Mr. Assad's supporters. Many of them are in Syria's Christian minority, which makes up 10 percent of the population and has mostly stayed out of the war. Many fear that a victory by the predominately Sunni opposition would leave them with no place in the country, and have cast their lot with Mr. Assad.

"She is a patriot, she loves Syria and Christianity, she stands tall and is never afraid to tell the truth," said a 30-year-old Christian woman reached by phone in Damascus who gave only her first name, Alissar, for security reasons.

But Sid Ahmed Hammouche, a Swiss reporter who helped write the book accusing Mother Agnes of complicity in his colleague's death, sees her differently. "She defends the regime and plays the Christian card," he said. "We know very well that Bashar wanted to play the Christian card, and he still does."

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris, Andrew Roth from Moscow, and an employee of The New York Times from Beirut, Lebanon.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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