After three years of civil war, during which brutal killing has become commonplace, many Syrians were left stunned Monday by the murder of a Dutch Jesuit priest gunned down in Homs, the besieged city that had been his home since the mid-1960s and which he refused to abandon, even as it came under heavy attack and its residents starved.
Francis Van Der Lugt, or Abouna (father) Frans as he was known to Syrians, touched the lives of many, not only Christians. A Jesuit, he belonged to the same order as Pope Francis, and his impact was felt far beyond the doors of the monastery where he ministered. His initiatives “Al Ard” (The Land) and “Al Maseer” (The Path) introduced many Syrians to each other and to their country — often for the first time. His steadfast commitment to providing relief to all Syrians in a time when he could have easily escaped the country as it descended into its current abyss, earned him wide respect and love.
As word of his death spread through Syria, Syrians grieved publically, even though grief is closely monitored by the government for the political leanings or sympathies it might betray. On Facebook, young and old replaced their profile pictures with one of Frans: in a T-shirt, on a bicycle, among the olive trees, or smiling under the unmistakable black basalt arches of Homs’s Old City.
Within hours of his murder, reportedly by a masked gunman who walked into the garden of the monastery where Frans lived and shot him in the head, photos of his corpse circulated the Internet, accompanied by expressions of anger, pain and loss. Syrians mourned a friend who they said loved and served Syria and its people in a way no one in the regime or opposition had; a man of the cloth who nonetheless never differentiated between Syrians of different faiths; a father-like figure who dedicated his life to enabling Syrians to build relationships with each other across the lines — religious, political, social, geographical — that might divide them and indeed have, to great extent today.
“He made a great difference in a world full of differences,” said a retired schoolteacher who lived in Homs for three decades before fleeing to nearby Lebanon. She declined to give her name.
That impact was felt from when he first arrived, said another Homs native and resident who also declined to give her name. Enrolled at the Jesuit high school in 1966, she recalled a time when girls were never seen riding bicycles. Yet Frans took her class of girls on a bike ride through a garden where they then had a picnic and talked openly about the issues concerning them.
“My outlook on life changed because of him,” she said. “I felt I could do what I was capable of doing. That there was no “aib” (shame), that there were no boundaries.”
Now a successful pharmacist and businesswoman, she said that Frans continued to influence her as an adult, with his open discussion groups about marriage and child rearing, which were informed by his training as a psychologist.
Younger generations knew Frans through his Ard and Maseer initiatives, both of which brought Syrians from all walks of life together. Syrians came to the Ard, an agricultural center on a hill just a few miles outside Homs, to camp, work, and talk side by side. Through Maseer, he guided them on 3-day or 10-day hikes through parts of Syria many may have never otherwise known. The hikers slept in orchards or schoolhouses in small villages, interacting with the farmers and locals. Along the way they forged long-lasting friendships with people of all stripes in settings that seemed freer because they were removed from what the hikers had always known.
In a country where civil-society had been strictly curtailed as a way to preserve the regime’s grip on power, such spaces were few, and participants said they often knew who amongst them was really a government informant keeping watch.
As war engulfed Syria, the hikes stopped. The Ard became a place of refuge. Families — mostly Muslim — fleeing the violence took shelter there and in the monastery, under Frans’s protection. Several who had taken the walks or camped on the land died or disappeared, including the young documentary filmmaker Basel Shehadeh who was killed in Homs in 2012. After the government prevented his body from being returned to his native Damascus, Frans gave him a Christian burial in Homs.
When the government blockaded Homs’s Old City in an attempt to starve out armed opposition forces that had taken up positions there, he delivered food to hungry residents and issued a video appeal saying that the people of Homs “love life and love living it and we hate to die out of agony.” He even helped the U.N. negotiate a temporary truce between government and opposition forces that allowed some of the city’s most vulnerable residents to leave and humanitarian aid to enter.
However, he never considered leaving himself.
The day before Frans died, in a conversation with Rabei (who declined to give his last name), a former coordinator at the Ard who worked closely with him for years before moving to Damascus, Frans said that he was doing very well, eating a soup he had made from grass.
Though he remained in good spirits, residents of Homs said they were increasingly worried about Frans, especially given the infighting amongst different rebel groups who controlled the Old City. Recently, he had been beaten up.
SANA, the official Syrian news agency, on Monday blamed “terrorists” for his “assassination,” and the opposition denounced his murder.
But George Eye, a Syrian who hiked with Frans but recently began working in the United Kingdom, in a much-circulated note on Facebook seemed to echo the sentiments of many about the two bullets that killed Frans.
“Some say it’s the regime and some say it’s the opposition. Well ‘Sidi,’ (buddy) there were two bullets. Consider one of them from the regime and one from the opposition; I emphasize to you they were the most merciful bullets after all he went through and we all abandoned him.”
For Talal Kabakibi, who had been on at least 20 hikes with Frans since 2002, a great deal of hope died with him.
Now living in Dubai, Kabakibi said, “I imagined that after the fighting ended, it was Frans who could have fixed the rifts between the Syrian people. There is no one besides Frans who could do that.”
Kabakibi keeps in touch with friends he made through Frans, even as many scattered abroad, and had felt relieved when Rabei immediately notified him and others of the conversation he had with Frans, after a month of trying to reach him by phone. Frans told Rabei to tell people he was well and that anyone could call him on a cell phone number he shared.
Kabakibi was planning on calling him the day he died.
Rabei — who said Monday via email that Frans was “my father and my mother” — had written in his note to friends, “I heard Frans’s voice and he says from inside Old Homs that ‘the Syrian People’s heart is good.’”