By Joseph Nasr
BERLIN (Reuters) – Syrian refugees and German politicians condemned on Wednesday a visit to Damascus by members of an anti-immigrant party, saying their depictions of life in the city as “normal” were especially offensive when a rebel-held enclave nearby was being bombarded.
Seven members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) are currently on a “fact-finding” trip to Syria, which the party wants classified as a safe-country of origin. This would make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers from Germany.
Syrians in Germany have been particularly angered by posts on the Facebook page of Christian Blex, a regional AfD lawmaker, who wrote that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wanted the 600,000 Syrians who have sought refuge in Germany to return.
Blex also wrote: “You hardly see any military. There are adverts for mobile phones and televisions. Normal life.”
The comments came as Syrian government forces continued to pound eastern Ghouta, an opposition-held enclave on the outskirts of Damascus where hundreds of civilians have been killed in a two-week bombing campaign.
“Were you also able to travel to (eastern) Ghouta?,” Fadi Brimo, a Syrian refugee living in Dortmund, asked Blex. “You know what? You are sick.”
Mohamad Fakhri Kaake, a Syrian based in Stuttgart, wrote: “If you were serious you would have gone to Ghouta, Homs or Idlib and asked people there what they think. You know what they think, but you have no interest in the truth.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman slammed the visit.
“Those who flatter this regime disqualify themselves,” Steffen Seibert told a regular news conference. “The Syrian regime shows every day how inhumanly it treats its own people.”
A spokesman for the AfD said the visit was private and did not represent the AfD’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag lower house, though it included some Bundestag deputies.
The AfD swept into the Bundestag in last September’s election on a wave of public concern over Merkel’s decision in 2015 to let in more than a million asylum seekers, many of them from Syria.
The AfD says Islam is incompatible with the German constitution, wants to repatriate Syrian refugees and says German media coverage of the war that has killed hundreds of thousands and forced millions to leave their homes cannot be trusted as most outlets are leftist.
The mass-selling Bild newspaper criticized the AfD delegation’s meeting in Damascus with Syria’s Grand Mufti, Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun, who in 2011 threatened Europe and the United States with suicide bombers if they attacked Syria.
Bild labeled Hassoun a “terror Mufti” in an article that featured a picture of two Syrian boys who survived a chlorine gas attack in Ghouta on Monday blamed on Syrian government forces. Damascus denies using chemical weapons.
A spokesman for Germany’s ecologist Greens called on the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (GBA) to weigh launching an investigation into the AfD lawmakers’ meeting with Hassoun, saying it could possibly amount to “abetting terrorism”.
One Syrian opposition activist who was once jailed by Assad and then fled to Germany shortly before the uprising began in 2011 said the visit demonstrated close links between the AfD and Russia, which is providing military support to Damascus.
“What is surprising is their meeting with Hassoun. In Europe they are fighting Islam because they see it as a threat, but in Syria they have no problem meeting the man who threatened to send them suicide bombers,” said Hozan Ibrahim.
Members of the AfD earlier this year visited Ukraine’s Crimea region, which Russia annexed in 2014. The party denies receiving any funding from Russia.
(Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold and Hans-Edzard Busemann; Editing by Gareth Jones)