“The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties”
Just over three years ago, Jesuit priest Fr. Frans Van Der Lugt (known as Abouna Frans) was brutally gunned down in Homs after dedicating his life to serving the Syrian people.
Born in the Netherlands, Abouna Frans entered the Society of Jesus in 1959 and seven years later opted to serve as a Jesuit in the Middle East. With the exception of a short break to complete his doctorate in Psychology, he spent the rest of his life from 1976 in Syria. Here he founded the Al-Ard institute in Homs, where children with disabilities, of all religions and ethnic groups were welcomed and many making the institute their home.
When civil war erupted in 2011 he chose to remain in the country, sharing in the suffering of the conflict alongside the people he had spent most of his life with.
As the fighting intensified, Fr Frans moved to the Jesuit residence in Boustan-Diwan in the inner city. He refused to leave his people even as the faced shelling and bombings from all sides. His home became a haven who had nowhere to go and he, the people’s refuge. He was often seen on his bicycle, visiting people in the most ravaged areas of the city. And his message to them was always the same—one of hope: of mercy and reconciliation, of justice and of peace.
The old city where Abouna Frans found himself was a stronghold of the rebels and therefore was constantly under siege. It meant no food supplies or other essentials were accessible and people were not allowed in or out of the city. Starvation claimed the lives of many people Fr Frans served. The priest himself existed on olives and broth fortified with weeds picked off the streets.
“The faces of people you see in the street are weak and yellow,” he told a journalist once. “Their bodies are weakened and have lost their strength.”
Abouna Frans was gunned down just three days before what would have been his 76th birthday. Despite the hostilities around them, his friends inside the old city came together to perform the last rites and to bury him in the compound of the Jesuit Centre.
The Syrian people who’s lives he touched will never forget his words “the Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties”. This he did in full measure: he lived with them, he died for them. He once said, “I don’t see Muslims or Christians; I see above all, human beings”.
As his friend and colleague Fr Cedric Prakash SJ put it:
‘Abouna Frans was someone special: he was a complete human being. He was warm and compassionate to all; to the youth, he was an inspirer and motivator, who never tired of long walks; to the elderly, he was a friend and mentor; little children loved to cling to his long legs; for Muslims and Christians, he was a bridge-builder, a person who could draw the best out of them; for the spiritually weak and lost, he was a source of strength and a patient listener. He was a true shepherd, always in the midst of his sheep, who smelled of them. He had the courage of his convictions- he communicated this unequivocally. Everybody loved their “Abouna Frans”.
While the people in Syria still face the devastation that war brings, because of people like Abouna Frans, their compassion, kindness and courage, not all is lost.