A Dutch Jesuit priest who chose to remain in the besieged city of Homs to care for its starving population has been shot dead.
Fr Frans van der Lugt, a 75-year-old psychotherapist, had stayed in the rebel-controlled Old City throughout the two-year long siege by Syrian government forces, despite being offered the chance to escape. On Monday Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Dutch Jesuit province, confirmed that Fr van der Lugt had been killed by a masked gunman in the ancient city’s Bustan al-Diwan district. He said: “A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head.”
In a statement, the Vatican praised Fr van der Lugt as a “man of peace” and expressed “great pain” over his death. Spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi, a fellow Jesuit, said Fr van der Lugt “showed great courage in remaining loyal to the Syrian people despite an extremely risky and difficult situation”.
Fr van der Lugt’s death came on the day government forces launched an assault in the city, killing more than a dozen people, but it is still not known which side killed him.
At his general audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis prayed for Fr van der Lugt. The Pope said that the priest’s “brutal killing” filled him with “profound sorrow”.
Crossbench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool said: “He joins a long list of Jesuit martyrs who have sacrificed their lives truly believing that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. His death is a stark reminder of the systematic campaign by jihadists intent on the destruction of the region’s ancient churches.”
Lord Alton spoke on Tuesday at a prayer service for Syria at the Jesuit Farm Street in London, organised by Aid to the Church in Need.
He said: “We in the West, who enjoy so many freedoms and liberties, need to ask ourselves some tough questions about the disproportionate nature of the causes which we so readily embrace whilst ignoring the systematic, violent ideology of an Islamist ‘Final Solution’.”
Fr van der Lugt was born in 1938 and studied as a psychotherapist before joining the Jesuits. In 1966 he arrived in Syria, having spent two years in Lebanon studying Arabic. He ministered to Christians and tried to help poor families, setting up an agricultural project in the 1980s to help young people with disabilities.
There were 50,000 Christians in Homs at the start of the Syrian Civil War, while today an estimated 20 to 25 faithful remain.
In February 1,400 people were able to leave Homs after a UN-supervised truce. Many of the city’s remaining Christians left, but Fr van der Lugt chose to stay.