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British church leaders draw criticism for meeting with Syrian officials after chemical attack

(Reuters/Omar Sanadiki)A Syrian military officer records a video inside the destroyed Scientific Research Centre in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018.

British church leaders were castigated on social media for meeting with Syrian officials and allegedly heaping praise on President Bashar al-Assad's regime just days after the gas attack in Douma.

The meeting, organized by Anglican vicar Rev. Andrew Ashdown, was attended by priest and columnist Giles Fraser, Christian peer Baroness Cox and former Bishop of Exeter Michael Langrish.

The delegation reportedly attended the meetings in Damascus just hours after the U.K. launched an airstrike on sites suspected of housing chemical weapons.

Fraser condemned the airstrike and defended the meeting in a series of tweets. The priest also posted some pictures of Damascus while expressing his admiration for the city. One picture showed Fraser with the Grand Mufti of Syria, who is a firm supporter of Assad.

"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," Fraser said in one tweet.

Assad has been blamed for the Douma chemical attack that resulted in the deaths of dozens of people, including women and children.

One journalist who joined the visit has reportedly described the timing of the meeting as "absolutely nuts."

Tory MP Nigel Evans castigated Fraser and the rest of the delegation, saying it "defied logic" that they decided to visit Syria just after the chemical attack in Douma.

"It is hard to get your head around why a church leader would want to do that. To go at this time and tweet nice pictures of Damascus defies logic." Evans told the Daily Mail.

"He appears to be one of the useful idiots - people who are prepared to visit the country at this time when its being ravaged by its own regime. I look forward to his future tweets condemning the Assad regime for his despicable attacks," he continued.

Fraser had resigned from his position as canon chancellor of St. Pauls in 2011 after "Occupy" protesters who were camped outside of his church were expelled. He quit in protest of the removal, and remarked that he could not support the "possibility of 'violence in the name of the church."

According to the Daily Mail, the meeting was organized privately and did not have the blessing of the Church of England. It was said to be aimed at marking a sign of solidarity with Syria's Christian minority.

Ashdown, who has visited Syria five times since 2014, had posted a Russia Today article that appeared to question Assad's responsibility for the chemical attack.

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