Monday October 29, 2012
From hippie to religious devotion
By ALLAN KOAY
One woman’s journey from the hippie 60s to a life of religious devotion has led her to work for peace in Syria.
If reports about Palestinian nun, Mother Superior Agnes Mariam, are to be believed, you would expect her to be somewhat of a monstrous woman with shifty eyes and a loud, booming voice.
Agnes Mariam has been labelled “controversial” mostly because her views on the Syrian conflict often challenge the mainstream media’s perspective. She certainly doesn’t mince words when she called media reports “partial”, “untrue” and “fake”.
She has even called the United Nations’ reports on the conflict “one-sided and not worthy of that organisation”.
One Catholic priest, expelled from Syria because of his criticisms of the government, called Agnes Mariam an “instrument of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime”, according to the Irish Times. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists accused her of abetting the Syrian regime in laying a trap for a group of visiting journalists, resulting in the death of French reporter Gilles Jacquier.
And yet her monastery in Qara, Homs, was attacked by missiles from a Syrian Armed Forces helicopter. Agnes herself cannot return to the monastery because the opposition forces believe that she sides with the regime.
The conflict in Syria began as a peaceful uprising in March last year as part of the Arab Spring spreading across the Arab world that saw the toppling of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. But the uprising has since turned into a violent civil war, like in Libya previously, and has seen areas such as Aleppo and Homs becoming hotspots of fighting, leaving thousands dead.
More recently the fighting has threatened to spill over into Lebanon and Turkey, with shells being fired across the borders, fuelling concerns about a regional war.
Recently, Agnes Mariam was in Kuala Lumpur during a stopover on her way to Australia to speak about the movement she spearheads, the Mussalaha Initiative, which seeks a peaceful end to the Syrian crisis. She was invited to give a talk at the Perdana Global Peace Foundation.
In person, Agnes Mariam is a calm yet strong figure who is soft-spoken but steadfast in her convictions. She and the Mussalaha Initiative are wholly against the use of violence and believe in reconciliation among the Syrian people without outside interference.
It’s a tough endeavour as foreign interest in the region is high, and the big powers such as the US, Russia and China constantly have their watchful eyes on the goings-on in Syria and its neighbours.
“(The uprising) has been very quickly used as propaganda in the mainstream media,” said Agnes Mariam. “They are trying to provoke something which is not about the Syrian people. It has been instrumentalised. That’s why things on the ground in Syria are getting more and more complicated.”
According to her, there are 2,000 factions now fighting against the Syrian army, but exactly who these factions are made up of is anybody’s guess. It seems foreign fighters have infiltrated the groups, hence the “outside interference”.
“The mainstream media has reported that there are 2,000 armed factions who want to protect the civilians, but even the civilians themselves don’t know who these factions are,” said Agnes Mariam. “They are from outside of Syria. They do not obey any specific leader.”
The Mussalaha Initiative is simply a plea to the outside world to leave Syria alone and let its people determine their own fate. The community-based movement has held two meetings in Homs, which saw the participation of various ethnic and religious communities. Agnes Mariam herself is travelling around the world to speak about the initiative and its concept of peaceful reconciliation.
She fears that the war could turn sectarian. For decades now, Syrians of diverse religious backgrounds have lived in harmony, but the conflict has caused religious diversity to become a danger. Agnes Mariam said that people from different religions or denominations now fear each other.
She said diversity is a richness that should be celebrated and not a threat to be feared, and that Mussalaha seeks to “build bridges where the conflict has built walls and destroyed bridges.”
She believes that the uprising today is no longer what it was in the beginning, and the Mussalaha Initiative is “a return to the genuine origins of the uprising free from distortions.”
Had the uprising been allowed to continue in its original form, there would not be any regime in Syria today, she said, pointing out that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled only after three months and it was all due to a similar uprising there.
Who is Agnes Mariam, really?
She was born in 1951 into a refugee family. Her father had fled Palestine for Lebanon and later married a Lebanese. As the daughter of a refugee, Agnes Mariam quickly realised that she had no real identity to speak of.
“In our home, we faced a lot of distress because of my father’s situation,” she explained.
“You don’t know who you are when you are the daughter of a refugee. You do not have an original land. You have an identity crisis, not only on a social level but also on an existential level. And this brought me on a journey through the ways of the world in search of the truth.”
Her journey saw her joining the hippie movement in 1967, when Flower Power had just arrived in Beirut. This was part of her rebellion against society, and she ended up travelling with a group of hippies through Europe, having long sojourns in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Denmark.
“Then I met Jesus Christ,” Agnes Mariam said. “I was reading the Bible and had a moment of illumination, about the reality of being, created by God and loved by Him. And this caused a big transformation in my life. I wanted to consecrate myself for this striving, which is the strive for eternal life.”
In 1971, she joined the cloistered monastery of Carmel of Beirut. The first two years were tough for someone like her who had previously led a carefree life and was now in an orderly existence. But she persevered and found herself “purified”.
In 1992, Agnes Mariam went on to serve the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, and went to France to study the Syriac and Hebrew monastic traditions.
In 1994, she began restoration work on a 6th century monastery in the Syrian desert in Homs, and this Monastery of St James the Mutilated became the order that Agnes Mariam founded.
Over 18 years, the monastery became known internationally, and in 2010, it received 25,000 visitors from Syria and around the world who came to seek a spiritual retreat. But right now, the Mussalaha Initiative is her main concern to help bring peace back to Syria.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire is one of the supporters of the movement, which has wider ambitions.
Apart from seeking a stop to the provision of weapons by outsiders to both the rebels and the regime, it wants to ensure the flow of truthful information.
It also wants to build an international network “where people, religious organisations and leaders are convinced that peace is the solution, and not violence.”
Noting that the middle path of peace and non-violence is not an easy one, Agnes Mariam uttered these chilling words: “We believe that when you stand on the side of truth, you could end up a martyr.
“In Greek, ‘martyr’ means ‘to witness’ but it also means ‘to fall’. We have seen how people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were killed. And some were killed by the very people they were helping. So we are ready to give our blood to this cause, to prevent war.”