In a YouTube video posted earlier this year an elderly man in a loose grey sweater sits outside a simple grey brick house. Birds sing loudly as he addresses the camera in French. The only sign that this is not some tranquil hamlet in the Loire Valley is the broken window pane by his head. This is Fr Frans van der Lugt, appealing on behalf of the starving residents of the Syrian city of Homs. On Monday a gunman brought the Jesuit’s ministry to an end with a bullet to the head. The precise details are unclear. But it is clear the septuagenarian posed no threat to anyone and his killing was a gratuitous act of violence in a country that has seen no end of them.
Fr van der Lugt’s murder is, first and foremost, an awful loss for the civilians still trapped in the besieged Old City of Homs. He successfully highlighted their suffering in a western media that has grown tired of Syria. He also attended to their immediate needs. In February the Daily Telegraph reported that a Muslim charity gave Fr van der Lugt four kilos of flour a week, which he then turned into bread. He gave half a loaf each to the enclave’s 30 neediest people. As a psychotherapist, he paid particular attention to the mentally broken. “I try to help the mentally ill,” he said, “not by analysing their problems, as the problems are obvious and there is no solution for them here. I listen to them and give as much food as I can.”
The death of Fr van der Lugt calls to mind that of Fr Christian de Chergé, the central figure in the film Of Gods and Men. In his last testament the French Trappist, murdered in Algeria in 1996, addressed his future killer as his “friend of my final moment”, commending him “to the God whose face I see in yours”. Fr van der Lugt made a conscious decision to remain in Homs, refusing several opportunities to leave. He must have known there was a high chance he would be killed by one of the ruthless Islamist gangs among the Syrian rebels. Like Fr de Chergé before him, Fr van der Lugt may have felt a call to lay down his life as a witness to God’s love, through Jesus, for every human being – even the most violent and unloveable. Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said on Monday that the Dutch priest had offered “the testimony of the love of Jesus to the end”. Fr van der Lugt brought the light of Christ into one of the most apparently hopeless places on earth. His is one of the great Christian witnesses of our age.
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