Priest stayed to share Syrian people’s pain

Father Frans van der Lugt, who has been murdered at the age of 75, was a Dutch Jesuit who devoted his life to the people of Syria; when civil war erupted there in 2011 he chose to remain in the country, suffering the shortages and terrors of the conflict alongside both Muslims and Christians.

He was born in The Hague but grew up in Amsterdam, the son of a banker. After attending St Ignatius College of the Jesuit Fathers, he joined the order in 1959, leaving for the Middle East seven years later. He learned Arabic during two years’ study in Lebanon. In 1971 he was ordained a priest. He returned to Europe – to Lyon, in France – for a further period of study, completing a doctorate in psychology before in 1976 going back to Syria, where he would spend the rest of his life.

He was based initially in the northern city of Aleppo, home to the largest community of Syria’s Christians, who are thought in total to number about 2.2 million, or 10 per cent of the population. Christians in the town of Maaloula, 65 kilometres north-east of Damascus, are famous for being able still to speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus two millennia ago. Syria is also celebrated as the site of the conversion – on the road to Damascus – of the apostle Paul, while Aleppo itself is home to the Church of St Simeon Stylites.

From 1987 to 1993 Father Frans worked in Damascus, and in 1992 he was appointed Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau. In his 60s he moved to Homs, where he was given a 20-hectare parcel of land on which he grew vegetables and propagated a sizeable vineyard. He also founded the Al-Ard institute, where handicapped children of all religions and ethnic groups found a home.

But Father Frans’s bucolic existence, tending his allotment and vineyard, was shattered in mid-2011 as opposition to the Assad regime, which had begun in March that year, developed into a fully-fledged civil war. Homs, Syria’s cosmopolitan third-largest city, was regarded as the opposition’s heartland, and as such became the target of a siege by government forces which endures to this day.

As the fighting escalated, Father Frans moved to the Jesuit residence in the rebel-held Old City . From there he shared the suffering of the inhabitants, refusing to leave. Eventually he was the only European in the enclave.

In January this year he broadcast a video appeal on the internet site YouTube, describing the horrors that the siege had wrought. “Our city has become a lawless jungle,” he said soon afterwards. “We are trying our best to behave in a fraternal way, so that we don’t turn on each other for the hunger.”

At that point, the siege had prevented all resupply for more than a year; nor had people been allowed in or out. Though relatively normal life continued just streets away in the government-held zones, starvation was claiming lives in the rebel enclave. Father Frans existed on olives and broth fortified with weeds picked off the streets. With his training in psychology, he documented the spread of mental illness among those who found themselves besieged.

To those who had lost their minds and found themselves shunned, he offered shelter. He made no distinction between Christian and Muslim. “I have learned about the generosity of the Syrian people. As I was with these people in their good times, I am with them in their pain,” he said. Nor did he find himself the object of discrimination: “A Muslim charity gives us four kilos of flour every week.”

Shortly after his broadcast, a UN-sponsored ceasefire allowed hundreds to leave the besieged area. Father Frans remained behind. His morning routine involved prayer, reading and meditation. In the afternoons he visited his shell-shocked flock. Of the 60,000 Christians who once lived in the besieged Old City area, only about two dozen remained.

On April 7, a lone masked gunman entered the monastery, took Father Frans to the garden and made him sit on a chair before shooting him twice in the head. Rebels and government forces blamed each other.

That afternoon Old City residents, including Muslim rebel commanders, arrived to prepare Father Frans’s body for burial, washing it and wrapping his head wound. He was buried in the monastery grounds the next day.

The Telegraph, London

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