As civil war continues in Syria, members of the Catholic community worldwide remain fixated on the country’s people and violence. But the Syrian conflict struck even closer to home April 7, when a Jesuit priest, Fr. Frans Van Der Lugt, S.J., was killed outside his house in Homs.
Van Der Lugt, who was 75, refused to evacuate Homs two years ago when the Syrian government siege started, maintaining that he would remain in Syria while Christians were still living in the city. His death was met with horror and grief by members of his order, including those at Georgetown.
The priest’s death was confirmed to the Agence France-Presse by Secretary of the Dutch Jesuit Order Jan Stuyt.
“A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head in the street in front of his house,” Stuyt said.
This direct and deliberate killing is indicative of a targeted assassination — although according to BBC News, the intention behind the murder is unclear.
Members of the Jesuit community and those who knew Van Der Lugt understand why he stayed in Syria despite escalating violence.
“The death of Fr. Frans Van Der Lugt is a horrible tragedy. The only way to make sense of something so senseless is to recognize that Fr. Frans was doing what he was called to do. Because the Jesuits are a missionary order, there have been many Jesuit martyrs who wind up in war zones, decide to stay and wind up offering their lives,” Secretary for Communications for the Society of Jesus Tracey Primrose said. “While not every missionary stays when things get difficult, the great majority do. They feel called to be there, and they want to accompany the people they have come to know and love. And that’s exactly what happened with Fr. Frans. He fell in love with the people of Syria, and he refused to leave them.”
Paul Heck, an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University who worked closely with Van Der Lugt on a number of occasions, praised him for his commitment and spirit.
“He was very committed to the people of Syria, Muslims and Christians alike. All his activities were really open to anyone and everyone,” Heck said.“He was also a leading psychologist and psychiatrist. In general, he was committed to the people of Syria irrespective of their religious affiliation, and that’s a very important and respectable thing.”
According to Heck, Van Der Lugt alone was willing to stay in Syria amid the violence and political turmoil.
“He was the only one that stayed there; the other Jesuits there left,” Heck said.
Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., explained that the decision to stay as a missionary in a dangerous country is up to each individual Jesuit.
“Every Jesuit discerns with his superior as to whether it is wise to remain in a dangerous place and sometimes that means it’s wise to leave, sometimes it means staying. So there’s not one rule,” O’Brien said. “We truly leave it to the discernment of the Jesuit and his superiors to decide what is best for that person.”
The last murder of Jesuits occurred on November 16, 1989, when six Jesuit scholars and priests were murdered in their shared residence during the Salvadoran Civil War in San Salvador, El Salvador.
“Part of our mission is to go wherever there are needs of people not being met, and that means we often go to dangerous places where people are weak, which includes various civil unrest. Our other mission is to accompany people, which means to be with them in times of peace and violence and not leave them,” O’Brien said.
Heck praised Van Der Lugt for his commitment to the Syrian people, regardless of religious differences.
“In no way did he feel it was possible to abandon the people there. He felt very committed to them as their pastor in Homs. He wanted to be a witness at a time when the nation was at war,” Heck said. “He did not take a side and he opened up the Jesuit residence to all people, Muslims and Christians, when the city of Homs was destroyed. He was very keen on them being a witness. He wanted to show that the true character of the nation was not violence — it was interreligious solidarity.”
Van Der Lugt was selflessly willing to give his own life in the name of self-sacrifice, Heck said.
“His decision to stay in Homs, he knew that it was highly likely that he would offer his life over the last decade in terms of serving people. There was no expression of anger at his death, which is amazing; all the responses from the people were of gratitude for his life, the life that he had left,” Heck said.
Pope Francis, also a member of the Jesuit order, praised Van Der Lugt for his bravery and dedication to his mission.
“[Van Der Lugt was] a man of peace, who with great courage had wanted to remain faithful, in an extremely risky and difficult situation, to the Syrian people to whom he had dedicated, for a long time, his life and spiritual service,” Francis said in a statement.