By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)– A Dutch priest, who became known for his insistence on staying in the war-torn Syrian city of Homs, was shot dead there Monday, April 7, by suspected Islamic militants, Catholic sources said.
Frans van der Lugt, 75, a Jesuit – the same order as Pope Francis – had been living in Syria since the early 1970s.
Alex Basili, Provincial of the Jesuits in the Middle East and the Maghreb, said in published remarks that the priest was abducted by armed men who “first beat him” and then “killed him” with two bullets to the head in front of the Jeusuit residence in Homs.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the killing, which took place in Bustan al-Diwan, a rebel-held district blockaded for more than a year by forces loyal to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
However the attack in a rebel-held area underscored concerns among Syrian Christian about what they view as rising Islamic extremism in the troubled nation.
Over the past year, hardline rebel groups including Nusra Front, linked to terror group al-Qaida, have become more influential among opposition fighters in the city.
Van der Lugt’s death was first reported by another Homs-based priest, Assad Nayyef, as well as the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria’s state-run Sana news agency.
Van der Lugt was directly targeted, said Ziad Hillal, a priest who was in the convent when the attacked occurred. “I am truly shocked. A man of peace has been murdered,” he added in a phone interview with Vatican Radio.
The priest was among the latest victims in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have died in an ongoing battle between rebels and forces loyal to President Hafez al-Assad.
Van der Lugt warned of the humanitarian suffering of the population in Homs in a video appeal earlier this year, saying local residents were living in misery and starvation. “It’s impossible that we suffer and the world does nothing,” the Catholic priest said, speaking in Arabic.
Christians made up about 10 percent of Syria’s population before protests in 2011 led to a wider civil war, but thousands have fled the country.
Hardline rebels have blamed, and attacked, Christians for traditionally supporting the president. Muslim militants have also made clear they want to create a strict Islamic state.
In a reaction to the killing, the Vatican’s spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said Van der Lugt “died as a man of peace, who with great courage in an extremely dangerous and difficult situation.”
He noted that Van der Lugt, “wanted to remain faithful to the Syrian people to whom he had dedicated so many years of his life and spiritual service. Where people die, their faithful shepherds also die with them.”
The priest had lived in Syria since 1966, after a brief period spent in Lebanon, according to Christians familiar with the situation.
He was also a psychotherapist and very involved in inter-religious dialogue, the Vatican said.
In Homs in the 1980s, he opened Al Ard, or “the land” in English, a center of spirituality, just outside the city. The center reportedly housed about 40 children with mental disabilities from nearby villages.
In the last three years of war, the Dutch priest was seen living in a monastery that is located in the old city, where civilians were besieged for many months by the regular army.
Van der Lugt often criticized a lack of medicines, food and aid to the beleaguered civilians, calling urgently for an agreement to intervene on behalf of civilians caught up in the conflict.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced Monday, April 7.
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