Background to the Mussalaha Peace Delegation to Syria May 2-11, 2013
SYRIA IN CONTEXT, 3 Jun 2013
In early May 2013, I joined 15 other activists in Beirut; we travelled from countries which included Italy, Ireland, Portugal/Brazil, Canada, the US, and Australia. We formed what has been described as the Mussalaha Delegation. Our undisputed head and inspiration was Mairead Maiguire, Irish Nobel Peace Laureate.
Two people were largely responsible for the practical work which determined that a delegation of disparate, mostly unconnected activists could come together. Noeleen El Hachem, based in Beirut, liaised with us from the beginning, and Mother Agnes Mariam, who works from Beirut and Damascus, did most, maybe all, of the groundwork necessary for the group’s visit within Syria. There must have been other people who committed time and resources to supporting the delegation in significant ways, but unfortunately, I am not privy to that information.
The delegation was an initiative, I would say, of Mother Agnes Mariam, Alan Lonergan, and Mairead Maguire. Although Alan wasn’t able to join the group for family reasons, there would have been no Mussalaha Delegation without him.
Alan is an activist based in Ireland who has worked for the Palestinian cause for many years. With his history of activism, he didn’t trust the mainstream reporting on Syria and so did some serious research to find out what was really going on there. Somehow his research led him to contacting Mother Agnes directly when she was still heading the monastery she had set up in Syria. He got a phone number for her, rang, and she answered. This call led to Mother Agnes visiting Ireland in August 2012 at Alan’s invitation. While there, she was interviewed by Ireland’s RTE. That interview must be one of the first in the western mainstream media with someone who has witnessed the terror people in Syria have been experiencing almost since the beginning of the crisis in March 2011. I still refer people to it. Mother Agnes’ first-hand knowledge of events in Syria and her ‘voice’ have quite an impact on people’s understanding of the war.
I was a Twitter friend of Alan’s and so he kept me informed about all of this. Mother Agnes had connections within the Lebanese Australian community who had thought of inviting her to Australia, and her successful visit to Ireland encouraged them to do so. So “Australians for Syria”, which I was a member of, and the “United Australian Lebanese Movement” invited her to Australia. She came in October 2012 and spoke to politicians, community groups, and church leaders. She had quite an impact on audiences. Her visit didn’t get a lot of media attention, but what was written about her in the MSM strongly challenged the mainstream narrative on Syria.
On her last day in Australia, Mother Agnes asked those who had helped organize her trip to set up “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) In Syria” (AMRIS). She returned to Beirut to set up ISTEAMS, the international arm of AMRIS. I was appointed national coordinator of AMRIS, and I took charge of the blog. (I’m semi-retired so have a bit more time than most other members to devote to this role.)
Alan Lonergan had accompanied Mother Agnes to Australia and acted as her media manager. He was excellent in that role, and he maintained his link with Mother Agnes and AMRIS after he returned to Ireland.
Going back to the Mussalaha Delegation, it would not have come together without the passion and commitment of Mairead Maguire.
Alan has been a good friend of Mairead, I believe, since 2009 when they joined a flotilla to break the siege on Gaza. More recently, Alan was in contact with Mairead about Syria, and in June 2012, she issued a press statement about Syria. At some point Alan introduced her to Mother Agnes, and the idea of Mairead and other peace activists going to Syria was mooted.
I learnt about this around the time Mother Agnes visited Australia, and so the idea of Australian politicians joining Nobel Peace Laureates on a peace mission to Syria was included in a petition I drafted when Mother Agnes was still in Australia. That was in October 2012; the delegation finally reached Damascus on 7 May 2013, evidence that peace delegations do not happen overnight.
I asked Mother Agnes if I could join the group. Like me, others on the delegation may have asked to be included when they heard about it, or perhaps they were invited directly by Mairead or others associated with it. I remember suggesting to Father Dave Smith, another Australian in the delegation, that he participate, and I was astonished when he responded positively; I didn’t think a trip to Syria would attract anyone I knew!
I’m not sure if our group had an official title. But one member, Paul Larudee, has referred to it as the “Mussalaha Delegation”, and as we focused on peace and reconciliation, that seems appropriate. Mussalaha in Syria is a grassroots initiative, which Mother Agnes is very much involved in. She gives a bit of background to it in an interview to RT. Also, the email address set up by Noeleen, Alan, Mother Agnes, and Mairead was “Mussalaha Reconciliation@gmail.com”, so it seems appropriate that we were called the “Mussalaha Delegation”.
At the end of our time in Damascus, there was a press conference and Mairead read out the declaration Mother Agnes urged us to write to present at the end of our mission. It was a rushed declaration written under very difficult circumstances, but one whose main points we could all support: We call on the international community to protect the territorial integrity of Syria and to respect the fundamental rights of Syria as a sovereign state. We deplore any intent to breach the integrity of Syria’s frontiers or to damage the unity and rich diversity of the Syrian people.
Our press conference was televised but few journalists attended; however, there was one young female reporter who asked a rather forthright question, prefaced with the comment, “Many delegations come, but then nothing changes…” Some days later, most of us were back in our homes, safe from bullets, bombs and mortars. But our Syrian friends remained to wake up to another day of war.
I learnt just today [29 May 2013] from Marinella Correggia, an activist from Italy with the delegation, that Yara Abbas was the young journalist with the question. Less than three weeks later, Yara was killed while reporting from the battlefront.
Yara and her family, friends and colleagues at her funeral as well as 23 million other Syrians are the people we have in mind when we work for peace.
Alan Lonergan has responded to the above report in an email to me and Media Lens. His report is detailed and fills in a lot of gaps in mine:
I agree with everything Susan has said. I will add my own personal perspective for your benefit.
As Church Liaisons Officer for a Palestinian solidarity organisation here in Ireland I try to keep a constant watch on the church media not just from the Holy Land but from the wider region. Over several months late 2011 and early 2012 I became aware of a disconnect in media reports regarding what was happening in Syria and what church reports from the region were saying, this lead me to widen my research on the matter. Our national radio broadcaster, RTE 1 runs a phone in chat show Monday to Friday which is a very popular show where the public are encouraged to express their views on the matters of the day. On Thursday the 8th of June 2012 they interviewed someone from Damascus about their life; the interview was set up by a Syrian supporter of the opposition who lives here in Ireland. Having listened to this and knowing there were other sides to the story I found a number for the Catholic media centre for the Diocese of Homs, who’s press releases I had seen, and contacted them and asked if someone would speak on Irish radio if it were possible to organise an interview for them and they agreed I was provided with a phone number for Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross. I prepared background information as best I could and supplied it to the radio show and on Friday 8th of June 2012 the interview went ahead. The first time Mother Agnes Mariam and I ever spoke together was on air radio before a live audience on that day.
Realising the urgency of Mother Agnes Mariam’s message I worked furiously to distribute this interview after broadcast. Principle among those to whom I sent it and who listened were Irish Nobel Laureate Mairead Maguire, with whom I had travelled to Gaza by boat in late October 2008, and also Fr. Dave Smyth in Sydney, Australia who is also a great supporter for justice in the Holy Land. By coincidence Mother’s interview on Irish Radio mentioning Qusayer coincided with a second visit to that town by British journalist and Channel 4 reporter, Alex Thompson. Alex had just had a bad experience with rebels in Qusayer and this perhaps made him receptive to an email I sent him with the interview of Mother Agnes Mariam on Irish radio. As a result he quoted from Mother’s interview in a piece he wrote a day later for the British “Mail on Sunday” newspaper of the 10th of June. There after Mairead Maguire who was already concerned about the violence in Syria issued a press release calling on people to listen to the voices of the peacemakers in Syria and this was widely disseminated across the progressive media on the internet. While Mother Agnes Mariam is fluent in 5 languages, English is the principle language of two of the most serious external aggressors in the Syrian situation. I felt that this initial interview with a European national state broadcaster, Irish radio, had provided an important platform within Europe in the medium of English from which to project her words. Following on from this work to promote Mother Agnes Mariam’s voice she found that her narrative was breaking through into the English speaking community. She was subsequently contacted by the Sunday Times (U.K.), Sky News (U.K), and BBC Arabic.
I remained in regular contact with Mother Agnes Mariam over the following weeks and months and in August while in Belgium Mother took time out to come to Ireland for 4 days to speak about Syria and to personally thank Mairead for her support. I had contacted the Irish media in advance and prepared a bio and background with a request for interviews. As a result she was interviewed by RTE lunchtime news, by Newstalk radio, the second largest news channel, for their lunchtime news and also did a 10 minute on camera interview for RTE 1 television she also spoke on BBC radio Ulster (Northern Ireland) alongside Mairead Maguire and was interviewed by the Irish Times newspaper . The television and radio interviews also spun out in many ways across the social media network.
In other small ways the message also spread and was picked up, even if it was with a grudging acknowledgement, by the English language media. Resulting from an email complaint and explanation I made to Patrick McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times, Patrick agreed to contact Mother Agnes Mariam and as a result he quoted her in an article in that paper. Within a week this quote was picked up by journalist Stephen Sackur who used it on his BBC Hardtalk programme (Mother is referred to at 21.17 min) Stephen Sackur was interviewing a Washington lobbyist employed by the “Syrian Support Group” a U.S. based opposition organisation. The Lobbyist refers to the views of theEuropean priest Fr. Paolo dall’Oglio, beloved of western media for his counter narrative against the views of the indigenous Syrian church community. Hardtalk is both a television broadcast and a radio programme on the BBC world service. At the end of that week the U.K. Independent newspaper published an online opinion piece on Syria by Emanuel Stoakes in which he quoted from Mother’s RTE TV interview and provided a live link to her interview on the RTE website. So in these small ways the thread of her message worked through the English language media.
Mother Agnes Mariam having been invited to Australia asked if I would go also and I agreed. Having done some voluntary work in 2011 with a Malaysian organisation called Perdan Global Peace Foundation, I asked for a stopover of the flight in Kuala Lumpur as PGPF had welcomed the possibility to host a visit from Mother Agnes Mariam, while there PGPF organised media for her visit, the two principle English language papers the New Straits Times and The Star covered the visit and the satellite TV channel Astro Awani also did an interview. After that it was over to the Australians and their amazing work.
Interestingly last November, on my way back from Australia, Mother and I met a political analyst in Beruit …who said that after Mother Agnes Mariam’s message broke into the English language that a wider discourse started to open up in the western media acknowledging a situation in Syria which had heretofore been hidden from the public.
So that is a account of some of my efforts with regard to this issue.
There was one negative that came from this work and this negative would make a suitable focus for Media Lens attention. The negative was the bad reaction of an Irish Times Journalist to Mother Agnes Mariam’s visit and the media attention it received in Ireland. The journalist in question, Mary Fitzgerald, has a strong network of connection to some Irish Libyan rebels whom she first covered in Libya and subsequently followed to Syria. She was irate with the attention that Mother Agnes Mariam received, questioning me by phone in the most arrogant manner as to “what organisation was behind the visit” and “who funded it” as it had received “blanket media coverage.” There was no organisation just me no funding just our own merger resources and support from a few friends and the blanket coverage was in part at least due to me exhausting myself to get media attention. Mary Fitzgerald wrote a nasty and defamatory article about Mother Agnes Mariam, she trawled the net and found the European priest Fr. Paolo dall’Oglio and used his words to counteract the article her paper had already published (Mother was interviewed by their religious affairs correspondent and Mary Fitzgerald as a foreign correspondent had not been involved). This nasty article has been tweeted by Mary on more than one occasion to journalist colleagues in the U.K. as and when Mother now receives media attention. The most recent example of this was when Mairead’s statement on her visit to Damascus was published. At his point I have become so annoyed by it I responded on twitter to what she was saying to her associates and followers.
Mary’s own articles on Syria could do with some scrutiny. She most certainly has never told her readers about the more questionable aspects of her Libyan rebel friend Mahadi Al Harait and those he is associated with. Media Lense might consider looking at this whole issue.
Some Reports and Images by Members of the Mussalaha Delegation:
Mairead’s report on the AMRIS website:
Report by Antonio C. S. Rosa, editor of TRANSCEND Media Service:
The group’s declaration on the refugee situation in Lebanon:
(On this page there is a list of the members of the group. Luke Waters is an Australian journalist not an activist who accompanied us in Lebanon but who didn’t go into Syria with us. Francesco, an Italian peace activist, chose not to go to Syria, so 15 of us went into Syria with Mother Agnes and other friends from Beirut. )
Father Dave Smith:
Paul Larudee’s dispatches on the delegation:
Amir Maasoumi on Syria Peace and Reconciliation Mission:
The final declaration of the group:
May 29, 2013
Susan Dirgham, National Coordinator of AMRIS (Australians for Mussalaha [Reconciliation] In Syria).
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