#Syria Death of a priest – What can be learnt from Father Francis’s murder in Homs?After living peacefully in Syria for nearly 50 years and devoting his life to Christian/Muslim harmony, Father Francis van der Lugt, a Dutch-born Jesuit in his mid-70s, was dragged into his monastery garden and shot twice in the head. It happened on 7 April 2014 in the Old City of Homs, in front of two witnesses, a fellow Jesuit and a local Christian woman, who said it was carried out by a single masked gunman as a deliberate, premeditated act. A few days earlier he had been beaten up, supposedly by a rebel group. Father Francis had been instrumental in negotiating the UN-supervised ceasefire in Homs in February reported on by the BBC’s Lyse Doucet (see last of ‘Related articles’ below), but had himself refused to leave the devastated and besieged Old City, preferring to stay behind in solidarity with the 24 Christians who were either too old or too sick to leave. As leader of his flock, to leave would have felt to him like the captain abandoning ship while some of his passengers remained aboard. According to some reports he was, at the time of his death, again involved in negotiating for more besieged residents to be allowed out, something some rebel groups were said to be angry about. The siege of Homs’s Old City has become a symbol of resistance, a thorn in the side of the regime, and many rebels feel strongly that if all civilians are allowed out, the regime will simply flatten what remains in order to crush all remaining opposition.
In happier times Father Francis used to run two initiatives to help bring Syrians closer to nature and closer to each other. The first was called ‘Ard’ (Earth) and was an agricultural centre based on a hill outside Homs where young Syrians could camp, work on the land and talk freely among each other. The second was called ‘Maseer’ (Walking tour) and involved him guiding groups of young Syrians on 3 or 10 day hikes in the countryside, where they would sleep in orchards or in village schoolhouses, meeting local farmers and villagers. He was trained as a psychologist and understood well how to encourage open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. Among those who came on such hikes was the young film-maker Basil Shehadeh, whose funeral Father Francis helped organise in Homs in 2012 after the authorities refused to allow his body to be returned to his native Damascus. Father Francis’s own funeral was conducted by local Muslims who knew and loved him. He was closely integrated into the community, helping whoever was in need, Muslim and Christian alike, making no distinction.
Who stands to gain from the death of such a man? No one has claimed responsibility. The regime has blamed ‘terrorist groups’ while the rebel opposition groups have blamed the regime – the usual scenario. We will probably never know for sure who carried out this killing and on whose instructions. But one thing is sure – Father Francis himself, as a Jesuit priest, would not have wanted his death to be avenged. It would go against all he stood for. That would mean his death was simply one more death in the equation, allowing the never-ending spiral of revenge attacks to continue – and to what end? The inevitable destruction of the country.
Much more constructive – though of course much harder – would be to try to emulate what he strove to achieve all his life – bringing people closer together and treating all in need equally. Not long ago he was quoted as saying::
“The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have”.
The best way to honour his memory would be to remember this deep belief of his in the Syrian people. Revenge would have been alien to him.Related articles: