April 10, 2014
Special to Syria Direct
By Kaiser Nahhas
ISTANBUL: A Dutch priest who had become increasingly outspoken against the Syrian regime’s encirclement of 13 districts in Homs was shot dead on Monday by an unknown gunman while sitting in the garden of the Church of the Jesuit Fathers in his adopted city where he lived for nearly 50 years.
An outpouring of grief followed the death of Frans van der Lugt, who was shot at point-blank rage at the age of 75 by unknown man on Monday in the rebel-controlled Bustan al-Diwan neighborhood in Homs’ Old City. Memorial prayers took place in monasteries in Homs and other cities in Syria, with candles lit for his soul.
While the Syrian state media blamed “terrorists” for the death, opposition activists inside Syria were quick to blame the regime for the priest’s assassination.
“What happened with Father Francis has happened to a number of people within encircled Homs,” a fighter inside Homs named Ra’ed told Syria Direct.
“Assassinations are taking place that are in the interests of the regime.”
In late January, van der Lugt, bundled in a scarf and coat and sitting at the church’s alter, issued a widely viewed plea to evacuate women and children and allow aid convoys into Homs.
The agreement to break more than 600 days of total encirclement, with no electricity, heat and nothing and no one allowed in or out of the 13 districts, was not being implemented by the regime, the priest said.
The priest spoke while surrounded by signs highlighting the humanitarian plight of the surrounded city. One read: “250 families are on the verge of dying due to famine.”
“I am a representative of the Christians in this area,” said Father Francis in Arabic.
“We, Muslims and Christians, live in hard conditions and suffer from a lot of problems, the biggest of which is hunger. People cannot find food.” Activists say eight Homs citizens have already died of starvation.
“We love life, and love living it, and would hate to die in agony,” said Father Francis in the video.
Frans van der Lugt was killed just a few days short of his birthday on April 10th. Born in 1938 in south Holland, he left for Syria in 1966 after studying Arabic in Beirut for two years. Before the war in Syria, he was known for his work with people with disabilities, and in recent months played a role in the negotiations to break the siege on the Old City of Homs. In February, he was a part of a supervised operation by the UN to evacuate roughly 1,400 people from the Old City.
Rerend Ziad Hillal in Homs described the murder to AFP by phone: “A single gunman walked into the church, entered the garden and shot him in the head.”
Church officials have expressed concern about the safety of the 24 other Christians left in the monastery where van der Lugt was murdered.
The rebel Military Coordination Council of Homs denied any role in the priest’s death, saying “we gain no benefit from killing this old good man, and we accuse the Assad regime of his assassination, in the purpose of spreading divisiveness between Syrians.”
On Tuesday, Colonel Fatih Fahad Hasoon from the Free Syrian Army told the Anadolu Agency that the rebels protected the priest for a year and a half, and “if they [opposition in Homs] wanted to hurt him [Lugt] they would’ve done it during that time.”
Hasoon added that “only Assad’s regime would benefit from his death and turning public opinion against the opposition, and to stop the international aid that is entering Homs against the regime’s will.”
Pope Francis condemned the killing, describing it as “brutal” in a tribute he paid to Father van der Lugt and the people who are dying in the Dutch priest’s “beloved Syria.” Pope Francis called for the end of violence in Syria during his address and appealed to the country’s leaders to foster peace and respect human dignity, saying: “Please, silence your weapons, and end the violence! No more war! No more destruction!”
Syrians on Twitter said this week they will remember Father Lugt for his courage and dedication to the Syrian people. “I can never understand why would someone kill Father van der Lugt?” tweeted a Syrian woman named Lama on Monday following the announcement of the priest’s death. Another Syrian named Nour tweeted on the same day: “We only hear about the good people of Syria after we lose them… rest in peace Father Lugt.”
Frans Timmermans, The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs said on his official Facebook page that he is shocked by the death of the Dutch Father Frans van der Lugt, mourning him as a man “who brought nothing but good things to Homs, the Syrian among the Syrians who refused to leave, even when it was dangerous.”
As the months passed and the regime tightened its hold around the Old City, van der Lugt refusing to leave in an act of solidarity with the people of Homs, saying that he will not leave while there are still Christians in the city.
The priest explained his decision to stay in an interview with AFP in February, saying “the Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have.” Ven der Lugt did not comment directly on the danger to his life, but made it clear he understood the consequences of his decision.
“If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties.”
Osama Abu Zeid contributed reporting.
Kaiser Nahhas is independent reporter from Daraa City in Syria, now based in Istanbul, and following the uprisings in the Middle East and Turkey. Hoping for a future secular Syria. On Twitter @NahhasKaiser.
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.