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Slain Dutch priest refused to leave besieged Syrian city

Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt, killed by an unidentified gunman last week in Homs, had committed his life to building bridges between the Muslim and Christian communities in Syria.
Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt (R) talks with a man in the besieged area of Homs, January 30, 2014. Van der Lugt, who is living in the besieged area, made an appeal for help on a YouTube video few days ago, shedding light on the conditions inside, which is suffering severe food and medical shortages.  REUTERS/Yazan Homsy (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST RELIGION) - RTX181GR

AMSTERDAM — Seven years ago, Rony, 24, felt a bit scared when he attended his first church service by Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt in Homs. As a young gay man who struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, he didn’t feel accepted by Syrian society. But after the service, Father Frans assured Rony that he was always welcome.

“'You don’t have to be ashamed,' he said, 'because God accepts all people.' A few years later, he even met my boyfriend," Rony, who doesn’t want his last name to be published, told Al-Monitor.

Over the years, the Dutch priest became like a real father to him, Rony explained. Father Frans even negotiated with the government of President Bashar al-Assad when his boyfriend was captured by regime forces. In July 2012, Rony and his partner fled to the Netherlands, but they always kept in contact with Father Frans. In March 2014, Rony called him for the last time. Talking about it, he burst into tears.

“There was no food, no aid, no medicine in Homs. Father Frans sounded sad and angry — angry because people were suffering, and angry because he saw people getting desperate," said Rony.

On April 7, three days before his 76th birthday, Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt — who was well-known for refusing to leave the besieged Syrian city of Homs — was shot dead by an unidentified gunman. He had lived in the Middle East since 1966, and the list of van der Lugt’s contributions to Syrian society is endless.

In the 1980s, he set up an agricultural project outside Homs where young people with mental health problems could find employment. He organized camps to bring people closer together and collected donations for the poor. His agriculture project, called Al Ard (the Earth), was a success. To carry it out, the priest got a piece of land from the Syrian government, with whom he had good relations.

Van der Lugt spent nearly five decades in Syria and considered the country his home.

“He was riding a bicycle, the only Dutch thing about him. His knowledge of the Arabic language was incredible. For us, he was a Syrian," Rony added.

The Syrian community in the Netherlands is shocked by his death. Those who knew him have paid tribute on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. On his Facebook page, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans called the murder “cowardly”, and said that van der Lugt is a “another victim of the gruesome battle” and that he “deserves our gratitude.”

During the war, the priest refused to leave Homs while there were still Christians in the city. He never kept it a secret that he expected little or nothing of the Islamist insurgents in Syria, who were, according to him, not capable of forming a strong opposition. In October 2011, he expressed his doubts about the rebels to a Dutch journalist: “The people who operate may want to remove the Alawite regime to turn it into a Muslim state,” he said, adding, “The Arab Spring felt more like a fall than a spring.”

In January 2012, a letter from van der Lugt was posted on the website of a Dutch group favoring the Syrian government. “Most Syrians do not support the opposition. Therefore, you cannot say that this is a popular uprising," wrote the Dutch priest in his letter.

Van der Lugt also mentioned that the majority of the population in Homs supported the regime, convinced things were better under Assad’s rule. According to Syrians who knew him, van der Lugt wasn’t afraid to share his concerns, but he always did so in an honest and diplomatic way.

Rony said that van der Lugt built bridges between Muslims and Christians, and that after the war started he only took the sides of the victims, the innocent people, becoming a priest for all civilians. He said, “Frans had good relations with the regime and opposition and wasn’t afraid to criticize both sides. That’s why civilians loved him. He dared to speak up."

Hanan Shamoun, a Dutch Syrian women’s rights activist, said that Father Frans repeatedly sent letters expressing his findings to different Dutch media outlets, but that they often were rejected. Therefore, it is unclear to the Western media whether he had any faith left in the regime, although Shamoun believes he still did.

“Frans was worried what would happen to Christians when extremists would take over the country," she told Al-Monitor. "Minorities had a good life under the ruling of Assad."

The priest was one of the approximately 24 Christians who remained in Homs. Before the war, 60,000 Christians lived in the city. Despite the horrors around him, he continued to believe in peace and reconciliation.

Shamoun, who was one of the first to hear the priest had been murdered, pointed out, “He was there for all Syrians. Muslims, Christians, everybody. Today, we lost a great man."

In January 2014, after the government had been bombing the city for months, van der Lugt made an emotional appeal on YouTube. He stated that they ran out of food, and that they needed help because civilians were under siege. For over a year, van der Lugt was trapped in his monastery in the center of Homs. He took care of elderly and sick civilians who could not flee the besieged area.

Like many other Dutch Syrians, Shamoun — who believes that rebels forced him to record the video — thinks that the priest was killed by extremist Muslims. Van der Lugt also played an important role in the negotiation process between the Syrian government, the opposition, the United Nations and the Red Cross.

She explained, “Most likely, the murderer was a disturbed extremist, because it is not in the best interest of the opposition to murder an innocent priest, regarding their image.”

“I think that the perpetrator believed that everyone in the world should become a Muslim. Maybe he even saw it as a command from God to kill him," she said.

But for Rony, it doesn’t matter who killed his "father," although he hopes that the Dutch government will try to find the killer. For many years, he witnessed the priest being used by both parties for propaganda.

Now, Rony cannot even return to Syria to attend the funeral and say goodbye to his dear friend for the last time. That hurts him a lot. 

“I did not only lose a father," he concluded. "Today, I lost Syria."

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