The former Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, was amongst a group of British Christian leaders to make a visit to officials in the Syrian capital Damascus hours after airstrikes by the US, UK and France, according to The Daily Telegraph. The group, which also included Anglican priest Andrew Ashdown and south London vicar and columnist Giles Fraser, alongside members of the House of Lords, Baroness Cox and Lord Dykes, met with the speaker of the People’s Council of Syria, Hammouda Youssef Sabbagh, 20 MPs, and the country’s Grand Mufti. The group had made the visit to speak up for local Christians in the country.
The three largest churches in Syria, the Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Melike-Greek Catholics, support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite Western opposition. They welcome rights afforded to Christians in Syria and fear for their futures under an Islamist regime. In a statement at the weekend, the leaders of the three churches denied that al-Assad held chemical weapons, and they condemned the Allied airstrikes as “unjustified aggression” and a “clear violation of the international laws”, Christian Today reports.
The visit was planned before the overnight airstrikes in the early hours of Saturday morning; but went ahead in spite of it. In a Tweet on Saturday, Giles Fraser described the bombing, which targeted alleged chemical weapons facilities, as “a disgrace.” In another Tweet, he said: “Some people I have met talked about going onto their roofs to watch the US’s ‘firework display’. Most seem to have slept through it.”
The visit was the latest in a series of visits by the group, for which they have received considerable criticism. “When British peers and Christian clergy have been to Damascus in the past, they were rightly condemned as presenting an image of appeasement to Assad’s regime, and showing him as some sort of protector of Christians, as though Syrian Muslims mattered for nought,” H A Hellyer, senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, told The Daily Telegraph.
“Contacts already exist between the UK and the Assad regime through different channels which do not show an endorsement of the regime – this, on the other hand, is done for no other reason except to give Damascus a chance to push propaganda.”