HOMS, Syria — A Jesuit priest who refused to leave his flock in the Syrian city of Homs was murdered by an unknown gunman April 7.
Father Frans van der Lugt, a native of the Netherlands, was caring for the fewer than 30 Christians who remain in the Old City district of Homs, which has been blockaded by the Syrian regime for nearly two years.
“Where people die, their faithful shepherds also die with them,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said April 7 in response to the death of Father van der Lugt.
Father Lombardi said the slain priest “died as a man of peace” and acted “with great courage in an extremely dangerous and difficult situation.”
Father Ziad Hillal, a fellow Jesuit who has been serving in Syria, told Aid to the Church in Need the slain priest was “a ray of joy and hope to all those trapped in the Old City of Homs,” adding that he represented “Christ in the world, who is willing to lay down his life for his friends, who always gives us hope.”
Father Hillal said the priest was “apparently killed execution-style, with shots to the head.”
“A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head, in the street in front of his house,” Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Dutch Jesuits, told Agence France-Press.
Given the siege, his body cannot be recovered at present.
In February, a three-day truce allowed residents of Homs to leave the city; at that time, the number of Christians fell from 89 to fewer than 30.
“The U.N. representatives were urgently required to leave Homs and go to another city, so we had to stop abruptly before finishing the evacuations,” Father Hillal said, explaining the February truce.
“Father Frans and the remaining 20-25 Christians in the city did not manage to leave in time.”
The February evacuation rescued 1,400 persons from the siege.
Father Hillal had reflected on the priest’s humility, noting, “He always asks how I am and does not talk much about himself.”
He described one of their last conversations, held via Skype, noting their hopes for a modest celebration of Father van de Lugt’s birthday.
He was to have turned 76 April 10.
Father van der Lugt had worked in Syria since 1967. He was a psychotherapist and was involved in interreligious dialogue.
In the 1980s, he built a spirituality center in Homs that housed some 40 children with mental disabilities.
In February, Father van der Lugt spoke to Agence France-Presse about his time in Syria, saying, “The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties.”
He had also said that “I don't see people as Muslims or Christians: I see a human being, first and foremost.”
The priest often regretted the lack of medicine, food and aid to civilians trapped in Homs by the Syrian regime's siege, and he repeatedly called for intervention on the civilians’ behalf. The Syrian regime will not allow food to be brought into the city.
Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans said the priest “brought nothing but good to Homs” and that Father van der Lugt “deserves our thanks and respect” and “must be able to count on our commitment to help end this misery,” the BBC reported.
Father Lombardi said the priest’s death was a “time of great sorrow” and called for prayer; he also voiced “great pride and gratitude” that the priest was close to those who suffered most and that he witnessed “the love of Jesus to the end.”
The priest is among the latest victims in the three-year civil war among rebel groups and the Syrian regime.
The conflict began when demonstrations sprang up nationwide March 15, 2011, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader of the country’s Ba’ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war that has claimed the lives of an estimated 140,000 people.
There are 2.6 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. An additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, director Aid to the Church in Need U.K., said the priest’s “witness to faith in the midst of the conflict in Syria inspires us to do all we can to help others.”
“We will continue to act in solidarity, prayer and action, helping to sustain the Christian presence in the region.”