A group of British peers and Christian leaders have been criticised for meeting with Syrian officials in Damascus, hours after UK jets struck the regime’s chemical weapons facilities in response to a deadly gas attack.
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The delegation, led by the Rev Andrew Ashdown, an Anglican vicar, included columnist and priest Giles Fraser, crossbench peers Baroness Cox and Lord Dykes, as well as Michael Langrish, the former bishop of Exeter, the Telegraph understands.
The trip had been organised several months ago, but some questioned why it was not postponed given the sensitive timing.
The delegation arrived on Saturday morning – a few hours after the RAF fired Storm Shadow missiles on a target near Homs – and met on Sunday with Hammouda Youssef Sabbagh, speaker of the People’s Council of Syria, and 20 MPs, where they discussed “illegal” British, American and French strikes on Syria.
“With the Grand Mufti of Syria – the top Muslim cleric in Syria – in the astonishing Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus talking about how love is stronger than missiles,” Mr Fraser tweeted yesterday. “Very warm greeting despite the bombings.”
There was also the possibility of a visit to onetime rebel stronghold Eastern Ghouta, the site of the chemical attack that left more than 40 dead.
A meeting with President Bashar al-Assad is not on their itinerary, although members of the delegation have met the leader during previous trips to the Syrian capital.
One delegate said there had been discussion about cancelling it but they ultimately decided it should go ahead.
“The timing is absolutely nuts,” one delegate conceded.
Britain severed diplomatic relations with Syria’s regime after Assad’s forces massacred 108 civilians in the Houla area in May 2012.
Despite UK policy towards Mr Assad, a number of high-profile British politicians and other figures have visited him.
“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.”
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Pope Francis meanwhile said on Sunday that he was "deeply disturbed" by the international community’s failure to come up with a common response to the crisis in Syria.
"Despite the tools available to the international community, it is difficult to agree on a common action toward peace in Syria or other regions of the world," the pope told a crowd of 30,000 after his traditional Sunday blessing.
Francis called on "all people of goodwill" to join him in praying for peace, and appealed to political leaders to help "justice prevail."