A Syrian nun who critics say is disseminating propaganda for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is currently on a U.S. speaking tour.
Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a 61-year-old Lebanese-born nun, has said videos depicting hundreds of Syrians choking and dying from poison gas attacks near Damascus on Aug. 21 were fabricated ahead of time in an attempt to provoke foreign intervention. The United States and several Western nations have attributed the attacks that they say killed 1,400 people to Assad’s forces, pointing to a September United Nations report confirming the use of sarin nerve gas against civilians in the rebel-held suburb of Ghouta.
Mother Agnes also recently helped "evacuate" civilians from the town of Moadamiyah, a suburb in Ghouta hit by the sarin gas attacks that has been surrounded by regime forces for close to a year. Residents of the town, denied food and humanitarian aid, subsisted on tree leaves, olives, and grass.
However, there are reports that hundreds of male residents ushered out of the town were subsequently arrested. Some were reportedly conscripted into the Syrian army or mercenary gangs.
Michael Weiss, editor-in-chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates Russian media into English, and a columnist for NOW Lebanon, said in an interview that Mother Agnes appears to support virtually every position held by the Assad regime. She has helped legitimize Assad’s propaganda campaign, which has portrayed him as the protector of Syrian minorities in the face of attacks by jihadists, he added.
Mother Agnes has denied that she is allied with the Syrian government and says her interests are strictly "humanitarian." She embarked on a U.S. speaking tour last week, organized by the Syria Solidarity Movement, and will also visit Italy, the United Kingdom, and Canada later this month.
"It’s clearly a case of someone who doesn’t work so much with the Syrian regime as for them," Weiss said.
"The woman is a crackpot, but she’s a sinister crackpot," he added. "She’s supporting what the world has come to understand as a mass-murdering, totalitarian regime, but she’s doing it under the cloak of a nun."
Mother Agnes has suggested that children in the "staged" videos of the gas attacks were abducted by Islamist opponents of Assad from Alawite villages hundreds of miles away, a claim also echoed by Syrian officials, Weiss said. Sergey Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, an Assad ally, seized on her claims in his insistence that rebels, and not the government, committed the gas attacks.
"She has been co-opted by the Kremlin as a kind of mouthpiece for the regime’s propaganda," Weiss said. "They love her take on the chemical weapons."
Audio files provided to Weiss further undermine her assurances that she is not allied with the Assad regime, he said.
Rebel spokesman Qusai Zakarya recorded conversations he had with Mother Agnes and released them to Weiss. In one of the recordings, she tells Zakarya that "it is better if unarmed civilians surrender and turn themselves in," suggesting that some of the residents of Moadamiyah would be arrested.
She tells Zakarya in another recording that Ali Mamlouk, one of Assad’s top security chiefs, has guaranteed that the civilians leaving Moadamiyah would be okay. She also says Jamil Hasan, head of Syrian Air Force intelligence, is not pleased with the evacuations "because the prisoners are now outside the circle of danger." Assad’s forces have routinely bombed rebel-held areas near Damascus.
Weiss said he was surprised that "an agent of a fascist dictator" would be granted entry to America.
"It’s astounding to me that this woman could get a visa to come to the United States," he said.
Drew Bailey, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said in an email that the State Department does not discuss individual visa cases because those records are confidential under U.S. law.
"Please note that all visa applications are processed in accordance with applicable U.S. law and procedures," he said. "The adjudication process includes a thorough vetting against information held by the U.S. government that may be relevant in determining the individual’s eligibility for a visa."
Several others have raised questions about Mother Agnes’ ties to the Assad regime.
The group Syrian Christians for Peace has asked that Mother Agnes be excommunicated, calling her "a frequent traveler whose constant goal is to support Assad, demonize the revolution, and present false testimony."
The group noted her allegation at a press conference in Beirut that there were no peaceful demonstrations in Syria at the start of the uprisings against Assad in 2011 despite the fact that she was seen at one of those nonviolent demonstrations hours before. She has also collected donations from expatriated Syrian Christians without telling them how the money would be spent, the group said.
Additionally, the widow and colleagues of Gilles Jacquier, a French photographer killed in Homs last year, have accused Mother Agnes of being complicit in his murder.
However, Paul Larudee, a member of the steering committee for the Syria Solidarity Movement that is sponsoring Mother Agnes’ talks, said in an interview that her critics have engaged in a "misinterpretation of her mission." The movement’s head committee is mostly composed of anti-war and pro-Palestinian activists including Larudee, who was aboard the flotilla that attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza in 2010.
"She doesn’t take opinions, at least she doesn’t express opinions that are pro- or anti- any particular political movement," he said. "Unfortunately this is interpreted as being pro-Assad, which she says absolutely and adamantly that she is not."
Larudee said Mother Agnes represents a "third way" group in Syria that is "mainly nonpolitical or agnostic about what the government of Syria should be and look like."
"They just want the fighting to stop," he said.
The solidarity movement felt this point of view was underrepresented in the West and brought Mother Agnes here to advocate for "reconciliation" among the different factions in Syria, Larudee added.
Larudee also said he was not "surprised" by reports that Assad’s forces recruited evacuees of Moadamiyah but added that "this is beyond the mandate of what Mother Agnes is talking about."
Others, like Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit priest who has likely been killed by al Qaeda, were more skeptical of Mother Agnes’ mission.
"Mother Agnes knows how to dose the words and she is only, I repeat and I emphasize, the [able] clerical expression of the deceitful manipulation action of the Syrian regime," Dall'Oglio said. "Mother Agnes is a self-proclaimed leader of a movement that does not exist on the ground, Musalaha ["Reconciliation"], and it is a real problem because for her interpretation of the facts is always selective and one-sided: that the revolution is terrorism."