Dutch Jesuit Frans van der Lugt served the people of Homs in Syria for 41 yeras until he was shot dead on 7 April 2014. He was a true shepherd who laid down his life for his ‘sheep.’
The city of Homs in western Syria, is the third largest city of the country after Aleppo in the north and the capital Damascus about 170 kms. to its south. Its population consisting of Arabs, Sunni Muslims, Alawites and Christians- reflected the religious diversity of Syria. The city has a number of historic mosques and churches and is not far from the Krak des Chevaliers castle, a world heritage site.
Today Homs is a devastated city: bombed, battered and bruised by five years of a bloody civil war. Thousands have fled their homes to Damascus and even abroad. Many from here have died. For those who stay on in the midst of ruins, skeletal bombed-out buildings in a ghost-town, there is a feeling of hopelessness, of not knowing what to do and where to go. Many of them just want to wake up from what they hope –is just a bad dream. Sadly, enough, the tragedy which has gripped their lives is real!
However, there is a sudden switch in the moods of the adults and youth when they talk of one man: Fr. Frans van der Lugt. Their eyes light up, a sense of nostalgia envelops them, as they latch on to the person and message of this great human; because he still lives on in their hearts and minds, some of them do feel that there will be a new dawn!
Who was this ‘Abouna Frans’ as he was fondly referred to? Fr Frans van der Lugt, 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 on April 10 1938 in The Hague the son of a banker. He joined the Jesuits in 1959 and seven years later went to the Middle East. With the exception of a short break to complete his doctorate in Psychology, he spent the rest of his life from 1976 in Syria. In Homs he founded the Al-Ard institute, where handicapped children of all religions and ethnic groups found a home .
His retirement years however were shattered with the civil war. As the fighting intensified, Fr Frans moved to the Jesuit residence in Boustan –Diwan (the inner city). From there he shared the suffering of the inhabitants, refusing to leave, even as that part of the city continued to be bombed from all sides. His centre became a home for those who had nowhere to go: Muslims and Christians; old and young. It was a haven for them and Fr Frans was their refuge. His message to all was one of hope: of mercy and reconciliation, of justice and of peace!
Because there were several rebels in the old city- that part was under siege. There were no food supplies coming in nor were people being allowed in or out. Though a relatively ‘normal’ life continued just streets away, in the government-held zones, starvation was claiming lives in the rebel enclave. Fr Frans existed on olives and broth fortified with weeds picked off the streets. “The faces of people you see in the street are weak and yellow,” he told a journalist “Their bodies are weakened and have lost their strength.” With his training in psychology, he documented the spread of mental illness among those who found themselves besieged: “I try to help them not by analysing their problems, as the problems are obvious and there is no solution for them here. I listen to them and give as much food as I can.”
Frans was a healer – he touched the broken spirits of a battered people; he did not care for himself, if someone was physically sick, he did all he could (with the little he had) to make them well again. His forte however, was to soothe the mental and the spiritual suffering they were going through. They sought his guidance and his direction – when they overwhelmed by the brutality around them.
Very ironically, on World Health Day, 7 April 2014, he was gunned down by someone who felt that this healer had no right to live and heal the brokenness of Homs and Syria. It was just three days before what would have been his 76th birthday. On hearing about his tragic death Muslims and Christians came together despite the hostilities around them – to bury him in the compound of the Jesuit Centre.
Fr Frans is revered as a Saint today by both Muslims and Christians. They will never forget his words “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”. This he did in full measure: he lived with them, he died for them.
On April 9th Pope Francis at the General Audience in Rome said“last Monday in Homs, Syria, Rev Fr Frans van der Lugt one of my Dutch Jesuit confreres was assassinated at the age 75. He arrived in Syria some 5o years ago and always did good to everyone generously and with love. He was therefore loved and highly esteemed by Christians and Muslims.
His brutal murder has deeply distressed me and has made me think again of the many people who are suffering and dying in that tormented country, my beloved Syria, which for too long has been the prey of a bloody conflict that continues to reap death and destruction. I also think of the many people who have been kidnapped, Christians and Muslims, Syrians and those from other countries, including bishops and priests. Let us ask the Lord that they may soon return to their loved ones and to their families and communities.
From my heart I invite you all to join me in prayer for peace in Syria and the region, and I launch a heartfelt appeal to the Syrian leaders and to the international community: Please, silence the weapons, put an end to the violence! No more war! No more destruction! May humanitarian laws be respected, may the people who need humanitarian assistance be cared for and may the desired peace be attained through dialogue and reconciliation.”
Every human has the right to live with dignity. In more ways than one Fr Frans ensured that.