Fr. Frans van der Lugt was killed in Homs five years ago. Since then, every day, Christians and Muslims have visited the garden of the Jesuit residence to pray at his tomb.
Fr. Frans – in Arabic Abuna Francis – was a Jesuit priest originally from the Netherlands. He died in Homs, Syria, on April 7, 2014, a few days before his 76th birthday.
A few months earlier television images had been broadcast all over the world of Fr. Frans pleading for an end to the siege of Homs where people were dying of hunger. The civil war had been raging in Syria for several years. In the center of the city of Homs, rebels and government troops fought from street to street and from house to house. A small area, where the Jesuit residence is located, was occupied by the rebel forces. That part of the city had remained isolated: people could not enter or leave, and the entry of supplies was prohibited. Fr. Frans made a television appeal for peace and food. He had stayed in Homs with the people.
Fr. Frans had arrived in the Middle East in 1964 and settled in Syria in 1980. In the years spent in this country he had built bridges between Christians and Muslims, between Catholics and Orthodox, between old and young. He was famous for the excursions he organized, multi-day marches in the mountains. They were difficult, challenging and healthy treks. He would walk with the young people and bring out the best in them. He also established a day care center for disabled children and a winery. He was Syrian with the Syrians.
A year after his death, a book about him was published in Holland: Frans van der Lugt, bridge builder and martyr. His life and death can be summed up as follows: he built bridges between people and was killed bearing witness.
Some remarkable experiences
Fr. Frans arrived in Syria in 1980 and stayed there until his death. He made his solemn vows at Homs in 1982 and began working as chaplain to the students and teaching religion. For 12 years in Damascus he carried out various ministries with young people and religious, giving spiritual retreats. In 1993 he returned to Homs where he became superior of the Jesuits and set up the Al Ard (The Earth) center for disabled children with the support of his family and Dutch friends. When the civil war broke out in 2011, activities had to be stopped and the buildings were occupied by others.
Frans moved from Al Ard to the Jesuit residence in the historic center of Homs. He decided to stay there so as not to leave the small group of people he led spiritually: as they had nowhere else to go, he stayed with them.
Fr. Frans could also send messages from occupied Homs. In April 2012 the Flemish magazine Streven published a report on his celebration of Holy Week and Easter: “About six weeks ago we welcomed seven families into our home, a total of about 40 people. We’ve become one big family; we all use the same kitchen. These people heard that I wanted to celebrate Palm Sunday with a few remaining Christians, mostly Orthodox. Muslim guests cleaned the church for us. They were all there with their children, with their best clothes. One of them was an imam, and I asked him to read a passage from the Koran. He did so with great enthusiasm, and then gave a brief exhortation about brotherhood. And when the moment of communion came, some of them also came forward, and all my dogmatic ideas (if I had any) vanished at that moment.”
“A week later came Easter. They joined us at Holy Mass. Death, resurrection of life: their Easter faith comes naturally. They’ve lost everything, but not their faith in life. They still know how to smile, help others, make children happy. They passed through the valley of death naked and empty-handed. Faith here is not artificial, but flows from the depths of the earth.”
“I once gave a ride to a group of people in my old 1976 Volkswagen van. I asked them where they were going. They explained to me that they had fled their village and were trying to reach Damascus. I asked, ‘Do you have friends or family in that town?’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘but there will be some good souls.’ They had literally lost everything, but not their faith in the goodness of people. And it must be said that refugees are usually well received by Muslims. They have the parable of the Good Samaritan mingled with their blood.”
In January 2014 Fr. Frans was filmed making dramatic appeals for food and the opportunity to leave the area safely. He probably was not free to express everything he wanted to say. You could see in those images that his health was deteriorating and that he had bruises on his face: hunger had taken its toll, but Fr. Frans had refused to cooperate with the people who tried to force him to say on TV what they wanted.
Monday, April 7, 2014, Fr. Frans was killed on the doorstep of the Jesuit house in Homs. The next day he was buried in the garden.
The day before he died Fr. Frans had sent what would be his last message: “I give you some news about us in Homs. Christians here wonder: What can we do? There’s nothing we can do. God help us! A man cannot do anything, but he can believe that God is with him in his difficulties, that God will not abandon him. In these circumstances of need and hunger we experience the goodness of the people. Those who have nothing left will find some grain and lentils on their doorstep. If you have nothing left, you must accept and discover the goodness of others. We see evil around us, but this does not prevent us from seeing the goodness of others; evil must not drive goodness out of our hearts. We are preparing for Easter, for the transition from death to life. The light shines from a dark cave; those who look in the dark will see a great light. This is the resurrection we want for Syria… Ila I-amam, let’s go forward.”[