The Daily Mail disturbingly reported this week: “Syrian rebels beheaded a Christian man and fed his body to dogs, according to a nun who says the West is ignoring atrocities committed by Islamic extremists.”
Its source for this claim was Sister Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun in Syria. She maintains that Islamist militants are inflicting atrocities of scarcely conceivable horror on the country’s Christians.
I am not given to underestimating the cruelty that religious absolutists, and specifically Islamist extremists, can inflict. But I’m wary of this source, in this conflict. Reliable information about the violence in Syria is scarce owing to the determination of President Assad to restrict what is known of his crimes. Only yesterday, the UN raised its estimate of the death toll in the uprising to 60,000.
Sister Agnès-Mariam has a notable record, however, of saying things that are convenient to the Assad regime and that do not accord with the conclusions of more reputable investigators. She claimed that the massacre of 100 civilians at Houla was the work of anti-Assad rebels.
It’s unsurprising that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit expelled from Syria after 30 years, was caustic about Sister Agnès-Mariam’s testimony when she was on a trip to Ireland last summer. He told the Irish Times: “I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts.”
Syria’s is unquestionably a brutalising conflict. But there is also much nonsense being circulated by fringe elements on the Right and Left who wish to denigrate the Arab Spring and the case for solidarity. A peculiarly monstrous example, confected by a right-wing conspiracist and Birther website called World Net Daily, also made it to the Daily Mail a few months ago. It was seriously claimed (with literally no documentary evidence, such as a photograph) that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was conducting crucifixions in front of the presidential palace. In Syria’s conflict, a Carmelite nun is suspiciously serving the cause of a murderous despotism.