WASHINGTON — Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, the Lebanese nun who is one of the most prominent critics of the Syrian opposition, has arrived in Washington to persuade Christian conservatives that their interests are aligned with Syria's dictator.
"Some senators and some politicians are interested because they are motivated concerning the fate of minorities, especially Christians," said Mother Agnes, who had a scheduled meeting with Sen. Ted Cruz canceled for the funeral of Nelson Mandela, but who will meet House conservatives. "Yes I am happy to meet them and to address this issue because it is an issue related to human rights."
Mother Agnes has spent the past six weeks traveling across the United States and speaking at churches and other venues as part of a tour organized by the Syria Solidarity Movement, a U.S.-based group led by a steering committee composed of several activists including International Solidarity Movement activist Paul Larudee and Gaza-based writer Eva Bartlett. On Monday she arrived in Washington, D.C., where she is staying at the Madonna House just a block or two away from Capitol Hill. She is in Washington to meet with "decision-makers," she said, including Rep. Frank Wolf and Rep. Louie Gohmert.
The Levant's bitter sectarian divides have long played into American politics, with some of the most strident anti-Muslim voices on the American scene tracing their roots to Lebanon's scarring 1970s and 1980s civil war.
Mother Agnes, who has no official tie to the Assad regime, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the theory that rebels, not the regime, carried out an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. She dismissed critics who charge that she is a propagandist for the Syrian regime and advances its chosen narrative as a protector of religious minorities.
"It is to discredit this voice," Agnes said of the allegations. "I am not Syrian, I am involved in the humanitarian approach of the crisis. I do not accept and I will not accept the false information because the false information about what is really going on threatens the security of innocent Syrian population, so it is important to be able to transmit the other side of the story."
Mother Agnes, who says she moved to Syria in 1994 to renovate a monastery in Qara, claims that the initial uprising that set off the Syrian conflict was not peaceful and was "infiltrated by a third column that would induce violence or stage violence."
Agnes said she only deals with the Syrian government as much as any NGO or human rights organization would, in the context of "Musalaha" ("Reconciliation"), the mysterious movement she is a part of and that she says is composed of "many reconciliation committees" and is headed by a "tribal leader" and a Syrian Catholic priest. The government, she said, has created a Ministry of Reconciliation as a response to Musalaha's growth.
She praised an explosive Seymour Hersh report in the London Review of Books that claimed that the Obama administration knew that a Syrian rebel faction could make sarin gas, the same weapon used in the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.
"I praise, I thank Mr. Hersh to be courageous, to be audacious, to be full of honesty, to be able because he is free and he is powerful, he is a reference so he can speak without fear what maybe others cannot," Agnes said. "He confirms our doubts. He does not answer all our doubts but he lifts the omerta that was imposed by all the mainstream media that since the beginning of the conflict are always aligned with the politically correct, and not really making a breakthrough to inform the people and at least stay neutral and stay really like the echo of the reality and not the echo of what the politicians want to impose."
Mother Agnes published a long report after the August attack that concluded that video evidence pointing to the culpability of the Syrian army in the attack was a fabrication. The report was widely rejected by other analysts, including Human Rights Watch, where a top official said that "there's just no basis for the claims advanced by Mother Agnes."
On Monday, Agnes stood by the report and said it made no difference that she is not an expert in munitions or video analysis.
"I do not pretend to be an expert and I am not talking out of any expertise," she said. "I say it's not out of a military point of view, not medical, not forensic. It's only to observe. I am a spectator and video is offered to the spectator. We have our right to have a position concerning any items that are offered to our consumption." She said she will come out with another study after she has finished her tour and returned to Syria.
Apart from her speaking engagements in other cities, Mother Agnes is in D.C. to meet with lawmakers. Christian conservatives like Mike Huckabee, who conducted a sympathetic interview with her on his radio show on Monday, have taken an interest in Agnes because of their concern over the persecution of Christians in Syria.
Of her aborted meeting with Ted Cruz and planned meetings with Wolf and Gohmert, Agnes said: "I am here to talk with as many decision-makers as possible for the sake of reconciliation and a peaceful settlement in Syria."
"I do not support the Assad regime with all its cruel actions nor do I support the Islamist terrorist rebels infested with al Qaeda," Gohmert said through a spokesperson. "There is no good side in this. However, the ruthless persecution of Christians in the area is of very deep concern. The atrocities must come to an end. My meeting with Mother Agnes is to discuss what she knows about the situation."
"I don't know her," said Wolf on Tuesday. "People are bringing her by, people who were on the ground in Iraq who are working for the American government." Wolf said he didn't know in what capacity the people were working for the government.
Asked about Mother Agnes' stance on the August 21 chemical weapons attack, Wolf said "I don't know anything about that."
"I think both sides are bad, Assad's bad and what's going on with some of the rebels is bad," Wolf said.
A spokesman for Cruz did not respond to a request for comment.
"As to why Mother Agnes is only meeting with Republicans, that is not our preference for sure," said Rick Sterling, a member of the Syria Solidarity Movement steering committee. "It's because the Democrats are 'loyal.' Heck, the two California 'liberal' senators were both on board for bombing Syria. Mother Agnes is prepared to meet and explain her experience and views to anyone who will listen."
Mother Agnes has been accused of complicity in the death of Gilles Jacquier, a French journalist for whom she obtained a visa and who was killed in Syria in 2011. Agnes has sued Jacquier's wife, who wrote a book asserting this claim, for defamation.
"It is a real calumny," she said. "It is an intimidation to make me shut up because France is very much related to the ongoing uprising and the way they infiltrate the Syrian population with terrorists."
She said she has been threatened by the Syrian opposition and has even been offered a bribe for her silence by a government, though she wouldn't say exactly which one beyond specifying that it was a "Gulf state involved in financing all these things."
She addressed evidence uncovered by journalist Michael Weiss that her role in the evacuations of Damascus suburb Moadamiyah was not as simple as it may have seemed and that she had a role in the arrests of young men who were leaving Moadamiyah. Weiss wrote that the number of young men detained was 300 or higher; Agnes told BuzzFeed that 550 men "surrendered" but only eight were detained.
And she expressed anger with the way journalists Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones threatened to pull out of an antiwar conference in the U.K. where she was also scheduled to speak, leading her to drop out instead of them.
"I am really scandalized that the press, the media they create an accusation, they spread it and it is taken as and becomes the identity of the person," she said. "We are today in a total dictatorship of the media."
"I am very happy I withdrew to let them do whatever they want," Agnes said. "But this has contributed to show me a very huge movement of approval of my actions toward peace in Syria and the people are not fooled by the false rumors and by the false accusations."
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why it granted Mother Agnes a visa.
This post has been updated with Wolf's and Sterling's comments. An earlier version of this post incompletely described the types of venues where Agnes has been speaking and the article has been updated.