As civil war continues to rage in Syria, Christian communities with ancient roots in the country stand in the crossfire between the Syrian government and the rebel forces. Below is an account of several days in the war zone from Father Daniel Maes, O.Praem., a Belgian priest who has been at the Monastery of Mar Yakub in Qara, Syria for several years [Editor: the monastery is under the jurisdiction of the Melkite diocese of Homs]. In it he details the efforts of Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, the Lebanese-born superior of the Mar Yakub nuns, to free hostages taken by the rebels and to negotiate peace. Father Daniel’s account appears in Italian at the blog Ora Pro Siria.
Saturday, October 12
At 11 am Mother Agnes-Mariam and Sister Carmel went to Muadamiyet-al-Cham, on the outskirts of Damascus, together with the rescue team of the Red Crescent, along with Ms. Kinda al-Shamat, the Minister of Social Affairs, and with the army. Twelve snipers were ensconced above the arcades that lead into the city. Mother Agnes-Mariam swept up a white flag and headed with determination, along with Sister Carmel, toward a group of about 40 leaders of the armed rebel bands that have been kidnapping thousands of ordinary people.… Now these armed bands were also threatening…to block off all food supplies. The ensuing confusion was indescribable, with shots being fired and shouts ringing out about how no one was to leave the place alive.
So Mother Agnes-Mariam tells Sister Carmel to pray and they begin to invoke the name of Jesus. Suddenly there is silence, and there is an opening for negotiations over the liberation of the hostages. It isn’t until around 4 pm that they regain their freedom. Some are numb with fear and the children are very weak. The soldiers kiss the elderly people on their foreheads as a sign of respect. Everyone hugs Mother Agnes-Mariam. The weakest are brought to the ambulances, the others are put on buses, to be taken to a school building in Damascus, where Governor Hussein Khallouf has readied the necessary care. Two thousand people have been freed. All have lost their ID cards. Tomorrow 1,500 more civilians and a group of 80 soldiers will be waiting to be liberated. Besides all this, somehow the armed groups have to be coaxed into laying down their weapons. And meanwhile, the terrorists have kidnapped two more people. The way home is still riddled with roadblocks, set up by the National Army, by the Free Army, and by the terrorists. As they struggle to get through the roadblocks, 12 more people are taken hostage and more negotiations are needed to set them free.
Sunday, October 13
Today 1,500 more civilians have been set free, and all has been caught on film and documented by the TV. We are seeing some very moving images. The newscaster on TV says that Fadia Laham (Mother Agnes-Mariam) has coordinated the entire operation. Mother Agnes-Mariam trusts that these events in Muadamiyet-al-Cham may set an example for the impending peace negotiations.
Monday, October 14
Trouble. These operations are very risky, and not everyone feels up to the risk. There are many misunderstandings with the [Syrian social affairs] minister. Meanwhile pleas keep pouring in from people taken hostage, begging to be liberated and helped. … This is the region where the most fanatical terrorists are active. However, there are also some rebels who have come to Mother Agnes-Mariam in tears, to tell her they are on her side.
Tuesday, October 15
The situation is getting better and there is hope for a liberation. The minister pledges her complete support for Mother Agnes-Mariam and also says something about a medal for the “Woman of Peace.”
Wednesday, October 16
They’re ready: 35 buses, 10 ambulances, and about 30 volunteers have come to evacuate from 1,000 to 2,000 people. Mother Agnes-Mariam and Sister Carmel are already on their way to the city, when, 200 meters away from them, a bomb is dropped into the street, wounding a few children. The army orders everyone back. The ambulances and buses leave, still empty. More bombs explode—a trap organized by terrorists attempting to infiltrate the crowd in order to kill the generals there. The army was not caught off-guard; it was on the alert and well-prepared, but the hoped-for liberation is averted. Mother Agnes-Mariam stays in touch with the rebels, negotiating their surrender. Those who are from Syria and lay down their arms will receive a pass in exchange for their surrender and will be allowed to go back to their families.
Syria, on the road to liberation
Syria has always preserved its independence from Western imperialism and has refused many international duties invented by this “new world order,” imposed with the sole purpose of undermining a country’s sovereignty. Syria has never stumbled into this trap: environmental taxes, labor taxes, taxes on production and on all forms of energy…. Despite the fact that from a political point of view there was little personal freedom in Syria, life was very cheap, very secure, and harmonious. The freedom and hospitality that we experienced for centuries in Syria, before the war, is inconceivable in a Western country.
There are many signs that Syria will rise up again, slowly but surely. … Moses led the “People of God” to the Promised Land after a long trip through the desert. This Exodus was the most important event in the history of Israel, and also the prototype for all liberations.
Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, Son of God, and savior of the world, in the role of a new and final Moses, has given the deepest sense to this liberation by his death on the cross and his resurrection.
This is our faith. And we believe and trust that now too He will be the final Liberator of Syria.
[Editor’s note: This blog post was updated on November 2, 2013, with the following correction: the Monastery of Mar Yakub in Qara, Syria, is not a Carmelite monastery, but is under the jurisdiction of the Melkite diocese of Homs.]