Former bishop of Exeter in controversial Syria visit questions evidence for Assad chemical attack

A former bishop who held high-level talks with the Syrian regime hours after last month's western air-strikes has said Christians were 'appalled' by the intervention and questioned whether president Bashar al-Assad was behind the alleged chemical attack on Douma.

Michael Langrish, the former bishop of Exeter who was part of a highly criticised, 17-strong delegation of Christian clergy, peers, writers and artists to visit Syria in April – dubbed 'Useful Idiots' by the Daily Mail – has defended the trip in an interview with the Church of England Newspaper.

The delegation of UK-based Christians met with members of the Syrian regimeTwitter

Questioned for the newspaper by Chris Sugden of the Anglican Mainstream website, Langrish said 'if I can be a fool for Christ's sake and so be useful for the kingdom, for the gospel and for my brothers and sisters in Christ, so be it'.

The controversial delegation included the Rev Andrew Ashdown, an Anglican vicar, the broadcaster, columnist and  priest Giles Fraser, and crossbench peers Baroness Cox and Lord Dykes.

The timing of the trip was criticised in elements of the media, though it had been organised several months ago.

Asked in the Church of England Newspaper interview, 'What was the response of the churches to the Allies taking out the supposed chemical warfare installations?' Langrish replied: 'Appalled. There were those who were appalled that there should be bombing anyway. There were those who were appalled at the timing of it. I thought the timing was wrong because there were too many unanswered questions. Two or three days into our visit I thought, on balance, that there had been a gas attack by the Assad regime. But there were so many unanswered questions you could not justify the bombing. By the end of the week, on balance, I doubted both whether chemicals had been used in the assault. The published evidence did not add up.'

He added: 'For the USA, France and the UK to have bombed before the questions could be answered was the worst of militaristic gesture politics.'

The delegation met with Hammouda Youssef Sabbagh, speaker of the People's Council of Syria, and 20 MPs, and reportedly discussed 'illegal' British, American and French strikes on Syria.

They did not meet with Assad, though members of the delegation had met with him in the past, as have senior politicians including the current Brexit secretary of state David Davis.

'The timing is absolutely nuts,' one delegate reportedly conceded to the Telegraph.

'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,' HA Hellyer, senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, said.

'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.'

Fraser posted a series of tweets praising Syria, including one with a picture of himself meeting the Grand Mufti of Syria, described by the Daily Mail as 'a firm supporter of Assad'.

Fraser wrote: ''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. Very warm greeting despite the bombings.'

In another post he wrote: 'Fascinating meeting today discussing the long tradition of religious pluralism in Syria with the Minister for Religious Affairs.'

And he also said that the Western alliance's bombing of Syria 'was a disgrace'.

Fraser added: 'Damascus such a beautiful place. 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.'

Defending the trip, Langrish said: 'We were there to bring comfort to the Christian community. There were 17 of us in a mixed group of parliamentarians, clergy, journalists, heads of charities and artists and that was not picked up on by the press at all. We were all Christians there at the invitation of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate to come on a pastoral visit to listen and learn about their suffering and also a humanitarian one to see how we could support them in their response to a situation of great humanitarian need.'