By Lorenzo Trombetta, for Europa – Translated by Mary Rizzo
With a terrifying growl and a nasty sneer the self-styled “judge” of a group of fundamentalist Islamic criminals pronounce the sentence: condemned to death by beheading – indeed, having their throats slit – for having cooperated with the regime. One of the three condemned men, which, as we are shown in the amateur film, is slaughtered by a butcher with a beret like those used in Afghanistan, is according to the caption, Father François Murad, a Franciscan. But his killing, in north-eastern Syria, had been reported three days earlier by another Franciscan, who had said they had recovered the body of Murad but had not reported that the body was headless.
This is one of the first and most obvious inconsistencies of a news that has been shrieked by Radio France Internationale and immediately broadcast, in a more or less uncritical manner, by most of the Western media: “Three Franciscans were beheaded in Syria by armed militiamen.” The gruesome video had been released by the network SyriaTruth, which for at least two years has been working as a megaphone in the West to defend the cause of Bashar al Assad’s regime.
According to a Syrian source in the region of Idlib, heard by Europa, the three were not priests but instead are “collaborators” of the regime. About an hour after the publication of the video, even the denial of Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land arrived: “None of this is true as far as we know. The monks in the region are all alive.” And it is again Pizzaballa on 24 June who did not hesitate to confirm, however, the news of the killing of the ‘”hermit” François Murad in Ghassaniye. This is a place near Jisr ash Shughur, in the north-western region of Idlib and inhabited until 2012 by a Christian majority. About a year ago Ghassaniye was conquered by Syrian insurgent fringes, which were replaced shortly after by militiamen of the Jabhat an Nusra Front, labelled as Al Qaeda – and considered by the U.S. as well as by Assad a “terrorist group” – more and more composed of mujahidin foreigners.
By their own admission, the militia of the Nusra Front are fighting for a cause unrelated to that of the rebels and anti-Syrian regime activists: the removal of the regime is only the first step in a much more challenging path towards the creation of a state entity dominated their interpretation of Islamic law. The link between the alleged beheading of the Franciscans and the Nusra Front is immediately established by many media, including Italian ones, based on the caption – where the agency Fides is cites – and on the fact that the crime in the film took place in Ghassaniye.
The video shows a group of people, many of them with Central Asian, South-east Asian and North African somatic features, around at least three people kneeling on the ground, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs. One can see two shady characters standing: the Executioner, wearing an Afghan paqul and speaking Arabic with a strong foreign accent (there are those who say he is a Chechen), and the “judge”, an older man who, for all appearances, seems to have just taken part, as the ogre, in the last film in the saga of the Lord of the Rings.
In the film there is no reference to the condemned parties as belonging to religious orders or as Christians. Neither does it state that they are executed as unbelievers – kuffar – but because they are “collaborators of the regime.” One of the reasons cited by the Executioner is that “in their mobile phones numbers of officers of the security services (of the regime) of Aleppo were found.” After the chanting of the classic Allahu Akbar (God is great) the execution begins.
There are many reasons to doubt the authenticity of the caption of the video, where a connection is made between the killing of Father Murad with the beheading of the three individuals who are as yet unidentified. And it is true that the denial of Pizzaballa, in itself, closes the discussion. But there are some confusing elements that recur – and that will continue to recur – in the context of a practice of disinformation aimed particularly at identifying these criminals as the rebels Syrians, with the all too evident aim of pushing the news consumer to conclude that things were better when things were worse. That the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in the end, is the best guarantee for avoiding descent into this hell.
The first issue concerns the origin of these criminals: they are not Syrians. They do not speak as Syrians, do not dress as Syrians and do not follow accepted practices in Syria. The second point – as pointed out to Europa by Alberto Savioli, a scholar of tribes in Syria, granted some authority due to his many years in Syria – it is unlikely that these militants belong to the Nusra Front. “In the film you cannot see their militia insignia. While in all their videos their flags and their logo always are present.” Savioli also points out that “no one of the Nusra Front or some other similar group has claimed responsibility for the killing of father Murad or the beheadings of these three individuals. But the Nusra Front always claims its actions.”
Even Lorenzo Declich, a scholar of radical Islam, insists that “those of the Nusra Front do not have problems with Christians. At least at the rhetorical level, they have always claimed that their struggle is not directed against the Christians. These persons – continues Declich – seem more like Chechens.”
Amedeo Ricucci, Italian journalist who months ago, together with other colleagues, spent several days precisely in Ghassaniye as prisoner of members of the Nusra Front, expressed strong doubts about the fact that the authors of the crime recorded in the video the others present are “people present at Ghassaniye, which is a place presided over by Nusra Front and garrisoned by a brigade of the Free Syrian Army. In the Nusra Front nobody is dressed as those included in the clip,” Ricucci says, who well remembers Father Murad because he met him in person right in the village when it had a Christian majority: “I do not recognise absolutely that he is Father Murad – he says – and I would tend to exclude the possibility that he might be one of the two with their throats cut.”
For Father Paolo dall’Oglio, a Jesuit who has spent more than thirty years in Syria and who was expelled a year ago by the regime in Damascus, “it is clear that there are criminal groups that operate in Syria and that they are anti-Christian. But remember that these are the same groups that the Syrian regime has previously used in Iraq in a subversive sense.” Father Paolo, however, accuses some Italian and European media platforms for their activities in support of the Assad rhetoric: “There is an objective convergence between the work of disinformation of the regime and the receptors of information of Catholic identity that are always ready to take the bait of the hooks of the regime ,” says the Jesuit, who now lives in northern Iraq.
“The regime wants to show that the revolution is terrorism and persecution of Christians in order to obtain the paralysis of European democracies and the support of the Islamophobic Catholic identity areas.” Father Paolo calls for the creation of an “international court of justice for all these crimes. Because we cannot use these sectarian crimes committed by radical Islamist criminals to justify the crimes of the regime.”
And from Kfar Nabl, a town in central Syria known for the creativity of its activists who draw cartoons and invent slogans, came an answer – this one yes, entirely Syrian – to the “shock video” of the ” beheaded Franciscans”: “Those who help Assad to survive – reads the banner photographed and reproduced on the Facebook profile of the local coordination committee – produce slaughter videos that demonise our legitimate revolution, which denounces all brutal actions.” (Europa Quotidiano, 28 June 2013)