Priest stands by Chris­tian lead­ers’ Syria visit

Yorkshire Post - - POLITICS & ECONOMY -

DIPLO­MATIC TEN­SIONS be­tween the UK and Rus­sia deep­ened amid claims that Moscow was block­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors from reach­ing the site of a chem­i­cal weapons at­tack in Syria.

The UK said it was “es­sen­tial” the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons (OPCW) was granted “un­fet­tered ac­cess” to Douma.

Rus­sia strongly de­nied in­ter­fer­ing with the work of in­spec­tors at­tempt­ing to reach the site of the atroc­ity, which the UK and West­ern al­lies have said was per­pe­trated by the regime of Moscow’s ally Bashar As­sad.

And Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov said re­la­tions be­tween Moscow and the West were worse than at the time of the Cold War.

He said the UK, Nato and Euro­pean Union had closed the nor­mal chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Rus­sia which pro­vided safe­guards against con­fronta­tion.

Asked if he felt he was in a new Cold War, Mr Lavrov told the BBC’s “I think it is worse, be­cause dur­ing the Cold War there were chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and there was no ob­ses­sion with Rus­so­pho­bia, which looks like geno­cide by sanc­tions.”

The UK’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the OPCW Pe­ter Wil­son said: “It is im­per­a­tive that the Syr­ian Arab Repub­lic and the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion of­fer the OPCW fact-find­ing mis­sion team their full co-oper­a­tion and as­sis­tance to carry out their dif­fi­cult task.”

He dis­missed as “lu­di­crous” a Rus­sian claim the UK had helped stage the at­tack in Douma, which killed up to 75 peo­ple, in­clud­ing a num­ber of chil­dren. He said: “Rus­sia has ar­gued that the at­tack on Douma was some­how staged, or faked. They have even sug­gested that the UK was be­hind the at­tack. That is lu­di­crous.”

He said Moscow was “spread­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries and mis­in­for­ma­tion” to un­der­mine the in­tegrity of the OPCW’s fact-find­ing mis­sion to Syria.

Re­la­tions be­tween Rus­sia and the UK have been plunged into the deep freeze fol­low­ing the nerve agent at­tack on Sergei and Yu­lia Skri­pal in Sal­is­bury.

The UK’s claims about in­ter­fer­ence with the OPCW’s work in Syria were dis­missed by Moscow.

“Rus­sia con­firms its ad­her­ence to the pro­vi­sion of se­cu­rity for the mis­sion and does not plan to in­ter­fere with its work”, the coun­try’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the OPCW said ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian news agency Tass.

Mean­while, Mr Lavrov de­nied Rus­sia had “tam­pered” with the site of the at­tack and in­sisted there was no proof that chem­i­cal weapons had been used.

The Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter told the BBC: “There is no proof that on April 7 chem­i­cal weapons were used in Douma.

“I can­not be im­po­lite to the heads of other states... but frankly speak­ing, all the ev­i­dence they quoted was based on me­dia re­ports and so­cial net­works.

“A can­is­ter ly­ing on a bed and the bed is in­tact and the win­dow glass is not bro­ken – look, you need to be a bit more se­ri­ous.

“Why strike the day be­fore the OPCW is go­ing to move there and ver­ify the fact which they as­sert was a fact?”

For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son in­sisted the strikes – co-or­di­nated with ac­tion by the United States and France – were “right for the UK and right for the world”. Mr John­son, speak­ing at a sum­mit of Euro­pean Union for­eign min­is­ters, stressed it was “not an at­tempt to change the tide of the war in Syria or to have regime change” and “the Syr­ian war in many ways will go on in its hor­ri­ble, mis­er­able way”.

“But it was the world say­ing that we have had enough of the use of chem­i­cal weapons, the ero­sion of that ta­boo that has been in place for 100 years has gone too far un­der Bashar As­sad,” he said.

Four Royal Air Force Tor­nado GR4s joined the mis­sile strikes at 2am on Satur­day. A PRIEST from a del­e­ga­tion of Chris­tian lead­ers and peers who vis­ited Da­m­as­cus in the af­ter­math of last week’s air strikes has de­fended meet­ing with Syr­ian regime of­fi­cials.

Giles Fraser, a priest from Ken­ning­ton, south-east Lon­don, joined church fig­ures in­clud­ing the Rev An­drew Ash­down and peers Baroness Cox and Lord Dykes for the trip over the week­end.

The group had trav­elled to the con­flict-shat­tered re­gion to visit the mi­nor­ity Chris­tian com­mu­nity, but also met with 20 MPs and Ham­mouda Youssef Sab­bagh, speaker of the Peo­ple’s Coun­cil of Syria, the leg­isla­tive body dom­i­nated by Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s party.

Their ar­rival on Satur­day morn­ing came just hours af­ter the Syr­ian cap­i­tal was ham­mered by a se­ries of Bri­tish-backed air strikes tar­get­ing sus­pected chem­i­cal weapons fa­cil­i­ties.

Mr Fraser said the del­e­ga­tion de­cided to push ahead with the trip de­spite po­ten­tial dan­gers and the fraught po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

Speak­ing from Da­m­as­cus on Mon­day morn­ing, he told the Press As­so­ci­a­tion: “This has been ar­ranged for ages; we came at the in­vi­ta­tion of the Syr­ian Orthodox Church, it was church peo­ple go­ing to see church peo­ple.

“We were in Beirut on the night that the bomb­ing hap­pened, we de­cided that as the Church it would be wrong if we sud­denly de­cided we weren’t com­ing.”

The group at­tended a Sun­day ser­vice in the city be­fore meet­ing with a group of politi­cians with whom the UK had long sev­ered diplo­matic ties.

On their meet­ing with of­fi­cials from the As­sad regime, Mr Fraser said: “The Syr­ian church has put to­gether our pro­gramme.

“There were a group that met with MPs, that was what they wanted us to lis­ten to so we sat and lis­tened to them.”

For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son ar­rives for a meet­ing of EU for­eign min­is­ters at the EU Coun­cil build­ing in Lux­em­bourg yes­ter­day.

Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn speak­ing af­ter Theresa May’s state­ment to MPs in the Com­mons yes­ter­day.

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