The Syrian conflict has now dragged on for 31 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader of the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people. There are at least 2.2 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
An additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
The Syrian rebels are made up of a large variety of groups, including both moderates and Islamist extremists, as well as Kurds.
Qarah has strategic significance in the war; its location on the road from Homs to Damascus makes it key for supply routes. The Syrian regime's army had begun an offensive to retake the city Nov. 15.
Mother Agnes described it as "very dramatic," and said that during the battle, her community was "out of communication. We are praying they remain safe, they have a kind of shelter. We have 50 people there, we hope that we will not hear bad news, we are very worried."
During the conference held at St. Rafka, Mother Agnes said the monastery, since the war began, was "there to help people." It continues to help liberate prisoners held for their beliefs, and provides refuge to displaced Muslims.
Mother Agnes was born in Lebanon, to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father, who became a refugee in 1948 when Israel was created. She described herself as "a victim from the Palestinian conflict," as well as the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and in which Syria was a participant.
She joined the Carmelites in 1971, and in 1992 received permission to serve the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Two years later, she travelled to Syria to begin establishing a monastic foundation, restoring the monastery, which dates to the 6th century.
Though it was at first hard to be in Syria, which had taken part in the civil war in her homeland, she said, "I have been converted, to talk now on behalf of the Syrian people; it is out of a conversion of love."
"We've lived in Syria for 19 years; we have been, little by little, driven to know the Syrian people, and to love them, because we are serving them."
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At St. James the Mutilated monastery, she said, "we work for peace, for unity…we work for the unity of all the sons of Abraham, Jews Christians and Muslims."
Qarah is an apt place to carry out this work for unity. The town has a history of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, and was once home to a Jewish community.
"It's a very antique village," Mother Agnes told CNA. "The mosque was previously a church, and before that a temple; it was made a church by St. Helena. We have another church that was completely looted, where there are frescoes from the 11th century."
Mother Agnes told the conference attendees that the "real victim" of the Syrian civil war is "the Syrian population … the ignored victim of the conflict," whom she said "has completely attracted, and converted us."
She recounted the story of meeting a mother whose son was long-disappeared during the war. After much waiting, the family finally received a call saying he would return, but the next day his body appeared, in a bag, mutilated and cut up.
"This kind of population, I would like to serve. And in our constitution, our rule of contemplative (life), our order, we have one article that says the necessity does not have a law; when something is a necessity, an emergency, there is no law."