Divisions over nun's rejection of Syria gas-attack evidence

Russia used mother superior to support argument against use of chemical weapons

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 8:35am


When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wanted to bolster his argument that rebels had carried out the poison-gas attacks near Damascus on August 21, he pointed to the work of a 61-year-old Lebanese-born nun.

She concluded that 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," Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross said with a wide smile in this Lebanese mountain town. "He will never stick his name to someone who is saying stupidities."

Mother Agnes, who 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 in the war made the videos - have significantly raised her once-modest profile as the long-time superior of the Monastery of St James the Mutilated, a Melkite Greek Catholic monastery in central Syria.

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

A US-based rights group sees 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, has denied any link to the government and has not spoken out in support of Assad himself.

She criticised 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.

"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.

"We are here and we didn't achieve anything. We destroyed Syria."