Mother Agnes Mariam of Syria joined 400 people representing many nationalities and ethnicities--Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Armenians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, Filipinos, Americans, Latinos--for an ecumenical prayer service at St. Thomas More Church in San Francisco on Sunday, Nov. 3.
Ten priests and pastors, from the heads of Christian communities who serve Middle Eastern groups in the Bay Area (the Greek Antiochean Orthodox, Greek Jerusalemite Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Congregation, Maronite, Greek Catholic, Latin Churches) collaborated in the preparation this event and were in attendance.
Also in attendance were choirs and soloists from the Latin [Roman Catholic] Church, Greek Orthodox Church, the Maronite Church, the Armenian Church, and the Greek Catholic Church.
Following the prayer service which began at 5:30 PM, Mother Agnes delivered her speech, summarized below, and then answered written questions. Paul Larudee facilitated the Q/A section.
Click here for the program. The welcome speech of Msgr. Labib Kobti Pastor of St. Thomas More Church follows this report.
Musalaha or Reconciliation
Mother Agnes spoke about the Reconciliation initiative and her humanitarian work in Syria as head of the International Support Team for "Musalaha" ("Reconciliation" in Arabic) in Syria.
She began with a moving introduction about the terrible fate of the Middle Eastern populations constantly harassed by sectarian violence to leave their homeland. She spoke as the daughter of a Palestinian refugee.
She shared the history of her discovery of the 6th century monastery of Saint James the Mutilated in Qara, 90 km north of Damascus, where she has been restoring the ruins and building an international community open to interfaith dialogue and hospitality.
She pointed out how she shifted from a heinous position against Syria--due to the occupation of Lebanon, her homeland, by the Syrian Army--to a compassionate adoption of the Syrian people in the tragedy of the conflict that is devastating the country. She affirmed she is so committed to the Syrian people that she applied for Syrian citizenship.
A grassroots movement that is apolitical and non-religious
The apex of her speech was the Reconciliation message. She explained that Mussalaha (Reconciliation) is a grassroots movement that is present in all parts of Syria and is apolitical and non-religious; it is a pure brand of the Syrian genuine culture of openness and brotherhood.
She gave moving examples of forgiveness and reconciliation in Syria where individuals and communities are tearing down the walls and building bridges of communication, negotiation, dialogue, and reconciliation.She spoke of Abu Fayad, a government employee, as a hero of this movement. Abu Fayad’s only son Fayad was abducted in Homs as a retaliation for being a Sunni working with the local administration. After several months, the abductors contacted him to remit to him his son. In fact, they brought Fayad’s corpse, terribly tortured and cut in pieces. Abu Fayad proclaimed publicly his forgiveness of the murderers of his only son, and he asked the different belligerent parties of Al-Waar neighborhood in Homs to forgive one another for the sake of Syria.
Mother Agnes described her reconciliation activity and explained how she is working with supportive environments within the opposition, in places like Moadamiya or Al-Waar as compared to the “non supportive environments” in Raqqa or Aleppo.
She explained that her Reconciliation activity compels her to visit all belligerent parties: the rebels as well as the loyalists.
She explained that she has to coordinate her activities with the Syrian central administration just as all the International Organizations that are accepted by the Syrian Government (International Red Cross, World Food Program, World Health Organization, UNICEF etc…) must.
Mother Agnes pointed out the difficulty of remaining a credible mediator in reconciling different parties. Each party has the suspicion that the mediator is siding with the other party.
Nevertheless, the achievements of the Reconciliation initiative are evident.
She explained the impressive achievement of the evacuation of 7,000 women and children from Moadamiya, the besieged rebel neighborhood in West Ghouta through a direct visit to the rebel military council and the Syrian Air Intelligence headquarters. She underlined the willing surrender of 550 men who were not allowed by the negotiations to be evacuated. Among them were more than 220 former fighters. She said it was a miracle of the Reconciliation spirit that the Air Intelligence forces did not retain anyone for more than few hours. These former rebel fighters are now in a rehabilitation center served by the ISTEAMS who will propose a program of non-violent opposition training with the help of US based peace activist NGOs.
She finished with a message to the US administration from the beautiful city of San Francisco: Why not to use "Flower Power" instead of the power of fire? She asked the USA to favor Reconciliation in Syria and to stop fueling violence.
Statements of Mother Agnes:
1) I have no political statement to declare, I am not a politician; I am a mediator for Reconciliation.
2) My convent is under Free Syrian Army control, and I have a very good relationship with them; they protect us.
3) I meet with all kinds of people from the loyalist and the opposition sides--with ministers, security officers, armed opposition leaders or popular committees militias. I have go from one place to another, many times under threat or danger, to negotiate with all of them for humanitarian issues to spare the bloodshed and to alleviate the conditions of besieged areas.
4) I mediate for the liberation of abductees and detainees. We try to help the different Syrian populations: Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawite, Druze, etc. "I tell you that reconciliation is happening between the different factions of the Syrian people. Many armed leaders are meeting through the good offices of Mussalaha".
5) The different factions (the Syrian administration and different opposition groups who are many times fighting against each other) want me to take sides with them and denounce the others. I cannot take any side. I am not a politician; I am a cleric. I work for humanitarian needs and stand with the civilians. I am with the Syrian people. "It is so difficult to be in the middle. You are accused by all parties." I denounce al kinds of genocide and killing by any party. I cannot accept the killing of any human being. Killing should stop and and foreign fighters should leave Syria to go back to their countries, and the supply of weapons should stop.
6) The Media mainly outside of Syria is against me. They accuse me of many things that I did not do or say. They pick some words from here and there and fabricate things. They put my humanitarian work in danger because the fighters read these words and become angry for things I did not say and positions I did not take.
7) I am compelled and invited to explain myself outside of Syria, and I meet with many different people of different views and persuade them with evidence and with kindness and they change their positions and join us in supporting Mussalaha..
After the speech, the audience asked diverse questions, which Mother Agnes answered with clarity and kindness. Paul Larudee served as moderator.
A video was taken by a person in the audience, and he promised to send Msgr. Kobti a copy. When the latter obtains the copy, he will disperse it widely.
At the end of the presentation, the priests and pastors stood in front of the all people and read a statement that you find in the attached program of thePrayer for Peace Service.
People then were invited for refreshments in the parish hall.
Msgr. Labib Kobti's Welcome Speech
As pastor of St. Thomas More Church and in fraternal friendship with my colleagues-- priests, pastors and leaders of churches, communities, and organizations--I welcome all of you present here.
Today we gather to pray for truth, justice, and peace to prevail in the Middle East, the place that is the homeland of our faith, where our faith started, and from where our ancestors brought it all over the world.
Prayer is our heritage--yours and mine--for, indeed, prayer is the way our ancestors in faith dealt in difficult times and with Death. They gathered around our saints in mountains and caves, in sanctuaries and in the desert, in public places and in safe houses; they gathered to pray.
They blessed and forgave their persecutors; they called for reconciliation and love; they honored their martyrs, and they persevered in the Land. We are the sons and daughters of these people of faith.
Today our church leaders at home and here of varying religious, ethnic, and social backgrounds call upon us to emulate our ancestors in faith. It is through prayer that we learn how to forgive, how to build and rebuild, and how to love, reconcile and continue to exist.
As Christians and Muslims trusting in the one God, the only one, holy, merciful and whose real name is love, we are charged with being a sign and symbol to the whole world as a people of the Middle East who lived in harmony for centuries and built together as Christians and Muslims our national entities and home countries mainly Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine as well as many others.
May our prayers unite our hearts and souls again today, and may we proclaim that love, forgiveness, and reconciliation are the solution to the chaos and violence we witness here on earth, whether in the Middle East or in other places.
And so, Brothers and Sisters, I thank you for coming to join us in prayer.