Every now and then I come across the story of a man or woman that grabs me – grabs me way down deep. Yesterday I read such a story. It is about a very courageous, very loving, 75 year old man who was marytred recently in Syria – just one among the 150,000 who have died there. Below are excerpts about him from The New York Times and America: The National Catholic Review.
I hope your heart is touched by this martyr in Syria – a man who loved Muslims, a man who loved Christians.
The Rev. Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who became a symbol of suffering and compassion in the war-ravaged Old City district of Homs, Syria, was shot to death on the morning of April 7th by a lone gunman.
The secretary of the Dutch Jesuit Order, Jan Stuyt, said. “A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head, in the street in front of his house.” He said there were no known specific threats against the priest, who will be buried in Syria “according to his wishes.”
Father Frans was a pastor and founder of Al Ard, an organization that cares for those with mental disabilities and provides one of the rare spaces where the three Abrahamic religions can come together and pray.
He was considered a kind of holy puzzle by many Syrians: a Dutchman who learned to love Syria perhaps more than they themselves.
The war in Syria started in March 2011. By then, Father Frans had been living and working there for 48 years. After Syrian government forces isolated and laid siege to the rebel-held Old City for more than a year, a truce in January allowed the evacuation of 1,500 people, both civilians and fighters. But Father Frans insisted on remaining in the monastery where he had lived for decades, offering refuge to Muslim and Christian families alike and sharing their deprivation and trauma.
Though he was European, Father Frans, 75, had come to be considered part of Syrian society and was well known in and around Homs, including among local insurgents in the Old City. He survived there long after foreign fighters from the Islamic extremist group Nusra Front moved in and raised new fears for the few Christians who remained. The siege and continued shelling in the city had forced out most of the civilian population, but according to Van Der Lugt in letters before he was killed, it practically wiped out the Christian community, reducing it from a population of 60,000 to just 66.
He had been living under siege for 20 months. Listen to his plea for help for the suffering people of Syria from January of this year:
Father Frans explained his decision to remain in the Old City in an interview:
“I don’t see Muslims or Christians, I see, above all, human beings,” he said, who “hunger to lead a normal life.” As the only priest left in the Old City to help the people there with their suffering, he said, “How can I leave? This is impossible.”
Tony Homsy from Aleppo, Syria, gave this tribute to Father Frans:
“. . .he was faithful. . .He was passionate about life, love and not fearing death. Full of joy. I see Christ clearly in him now. In deeds more than in words. And he did it very simply. Just living in simplicity with people, putting aside his years of study, not being their therapist — their Ph.D. — but their brother, their pastor; just another Syrian with we Syrians.”