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The syndicated columnist Robert Novak, compared with whom Pat Buchanan comes off looking like an honorary member of Hadassah, was in his element this week, essentially accusing Israel of crimes against humanity and relying on a dubious source for his latest bit of anti-Israel invective.

Novak, who exactly a year ago wrote of Illinois Representative Henry Hyde’s concern that Israel’s security wall was creating hardship for Christian Arabs, revisited the issue in a column that appeared in newspapers across the country this past Monday and Tuesday. Hyde is a resolute supporter of Israel, and the Monitor does not doubt his sincerity in raising the matter of the wall’s impact on Christians, as he did recently during a session of the House International Relations Committee, which he chairs.

But Novak used Hyde’s relatively gentle criticism – the congressman made clear, as Novak acknowledges, that he is not opposed to the wall per se – as a springboard to publicize far more incendiary statements regarding Israel made by Mother Agapia Stephanopolous, a Russian Orthodox nun formerly known as Sister Maria Stephanopoulos, daughter of one of the most prominent Greek Orthodox priests in the U.S. and sister of ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos.


“In a letter to Congress,” Novak wrote, “Mother Agapia…describ[ed] how East Jerusalem has been cut off from the rest of the West Bank. ‘It is only a matter of time before Christians and Muslims will be unable to survive culturally and economically,’ she predicted. The nun reported that Israeli slabs of concrete, 9 yards high, have ‘shattered’ Christian communities.”

Mother Agapia is even more adamant about the destructive effects of Israeli policy than the above quotes indicate. “Israel is destroying the local Christian community,” Novak said she told him. “Even the United States seems to have been taken in by Israeli spin.”

If something about the name of Novak’s nun seems vaguely familiar, there’s good reason.

Back in April 2002, Israeli troops, responding to a string of horrific suicide bombings, were conducting a sweep of West Bank towns and villages to root out Palestinian terror cells. In Bethlehem, a group of Palestinian gunmen seized the Church of the Nativity and holed up there for several days, trading gunfire with Israeli soldiers stationed outside the building.

It was during the siege of the Church of the Nativity and its aftermath that several e-mails from the area, accusing Israeli soldiers of all manner of barbaric conduct, began to circulate widely on the Internet. One of the e-mails claimed Israeli troops had “defecated” on the floors of a Bethlehem medical clinic they’d reduced to “shambles,” leaving “bullet holes all over the walls…and most of the equipment…damaged.”

Also according to the e-mail, Israeli soldiers had looted Palestinian homes. In one case, reported the e-mail’s author, a Palestinian couple (the same source, incidentally, for the defecation story) charged that Israelis “entered their new home in the middle of the night three times in the last month, once stealing all the money from the house, and another time strafing the house with gunfire, miraculously only slightly wounding one of their daughters.”

As for the gunmen who’d taken over the Church of the Nativity, they were mostly innocent citizens seeking refuge. “For the most part,” claimed the e-mail, “they are not ‘terrorists’ but policemen and parishioners of these churches, husbands and brothers trying to defend their homes.”

The e-mail writer urged all recipients to “Get on the phone and ask your congressmen and senators why the United States government is backing this invasion of Israeli forces into sovereign areas, why so many innocent civilians are being terrorized in their homes, their towns and livelihoods being destroyed by the Israeli government all in the name of stopping terror…”

An earlier e-mail from the same party had accused Israeli soldiers of raping Palestinian girls, but that account, wrote WorldNetDaily’s Paul Sperry at the time, was quickly discredited. And Sperry noted that “nearly all of [this e-mail writer’s] reporting comes from Palestinian sources. She has not herself witnessed the alleged Israeli atrocities.”

The writer of these e-mails, which immediately became staples on anti-Israel and anti-Semitic websites? The very same Sister Maria Stephanopoulos, a.k.a. Mother Agapia Stephanopolous, cited by Robert Novak as some kind of authoritative source.