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Love fuels Syrian nun’s efforts to promote peace, reconciliation

While a Carmelite monk from Colorado is barricaded in a Syrian monastery because of ongoing violence, his spiritual leader is traveling the United States and pleading for reconciliation over war.

Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a Lebanese nun who opened St. James of the Mutilated monastery in Syria in 1993, brought her message of peace to gatherings in Denver last weekend.  She was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when she claimed that radical forces outside of Syria were manipulating the media to promote an international war.

“I am not against the rebels or for the Syrian government,” Mother Agnes told a gathering at St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood on Sunday, Nov. 17. “I am for peace and reconciliation.”

A civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Syria erupted in 2011. Syrian President Bashad Assad, a Shia, faces rebellion from Sunnis and other Syrians based on religious and political conflicts. A reported 100,000 people have been killed and 6 million displaced by the violence.

Mother Agnes, 61, acknowledges that she once felt great anger toward Syria for its role in the 30-year Lebanese war.

“I had a conversion by love,” she said.

That love fuels her efforts to help broker peace despite death threats from both sides, she said.

“In the name of Christ, peace and reconciliation among Syrian people is all I do,” she said.

Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila led a prayer service in September after Pope Francis called for peace. Earlier this year, Maronite Father Andre Mahanna of St. Rafka’s, an Eastern Catholic parish in full communion with Rome, brought Christian, Muslim and Greek Orthodox leaders together for another prayer session. He also helped the U.S. bishops draft a letter to Congress urging a full understanding of Syria and peaceful solutions.

Father Mahanna invited Mother Agnes to speak to about 30 people as part of his ongoing goal to educate Americans about the Middle East. Denver Muslim Rima Sinclair helped set up the Denver events.

“The value of having sister here is that she is an eyewitness who works for humanitarian services with people on the ground,” Father Mahanna said.

Because of the death threats, Mother Agnes is not sure when it will be safe for her to return to Syria. Among the 50 people of eight different nationalities in her monastery is Brother David Johnson, a 1999 Mullen High School graduate who paints icons and raises agriculture with other members of the monastery.

“We are blessed for Brother David,” Mother Agnes said. “He holds all the values of America.”

Brother David, 32, refuses to leave the monastery despite the violence and having been arrested twice by the Syrian government for being an alleged American spy, his mother said. He graduated from Princeton University with a philosophy degree and studied Arabic in Damascus before joining the monastery.

“We had to send the government copies of his birth certificate and other documents to prove David is not a spy,” said Mary Johnson, who attended Mother Agnes’ talks with her husband, Greg.

Mary Johnson said her son’s spirituality was guided by his grandmother, Shirley Spahn, and his uncles who are priests, Father James Spahn, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Northglenn, and Father Steve Spahn of Georgetown University.

The family has been able to communicate with Brother David only through emails.

“It has been difficult not to be able to talk to David but we know he is doing what his heart tells him,” she said.

Mother Agnes’ trip was sponsored by the nonprofit Syrian Solidarity Movement, which includes American, Canadian and Australian peace advocates. She also brought her message to Arizona, California, Ohio and Nebraska.

Father Mahanna, who survived the Lebanese war by living in a cave for six months, prays that Christians will unite with Muslims and Jews to bring about peace in the Middle East.

“I truly believe that the Syrian crisis will lead to a major crisis of violence in the world,” he said.

Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.
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