It was an April day in 2014, just a few days before Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt would celebrate his 76th birthday.
The gunmen’s knock on the door was abrupt. The beating came first, then two bullets to the head.
At least once a year, I like to write something about him. The call to discipleship could not be more evident than in the life of a martyr, and I have a special attraction to Christians who won’t leave the place to which they have been called, even in the face of grave personal danger. Think Blessed Stanley Rother, refusing to leave Guatemala despite the death squads, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, heading back to Germany where the Nazis killed him.
Father Frans was Dutch, a psychotherapist who had dedicated his life to Syria. Near the city of Homs, where he lived, he led long hikes for his Muslim and Christian friends. He was devoted to interreligious dialogue, and the local imam sometimes read from the Koran at the priest’s Masses.
He had established Al Ard outside the city of Homs, a spiritual oasis, which included a center for disabled people, a farm, vineyard and retreat center. As the civil war closed in, the Jesuit protected those he could within his Homs monastery. Food grew short and human rights violations exploded as Islamist extremists fought each other and the Assad government. Those who could fled Homs.
But Frans van der Lugt remained with his people.
His friends remember him as a man of great generosity. He could stay up all night at retreats, hearing confessions and counseling, and be ready to go in the morning.
Today, we hear little about Syria, so caught up are we in the tumultuous election of 2020 and the pandemic. Cable news often seems stuck in one continuous political loop as if the rest of the world barely exists.
But the war in Syria grinds on.
When I remember Frans van der Lugt, I think of my friends Mohammed and Hadil. They didn’t live in Homs, but in the Syrian city of Aleppo, equally devastated by war.
Before the conflict, Aleppo boasted five million residents. The fighting reduced the city’s population by about two-thirds. People were killed, many fled. A refugee crisis of enormous proportions remains in the war’s wake.
Once, Hadil showed me proudly a picture of her house in Aleppo. It was an attractive middle-class home, decorated in Middle Eastern style. Today, it’s rubble. But the family, with their four children, escaped, first to a camp in Turkey and later, under the auspices of the United Nations, as refugees to the U.S.
A language barrier has made it hard for Mohammed to pursue his former trade as a technician. Their extended families have been dispersed – hers to Germany. His brother and his family have been stuck in Turkey since the U.S. slowed their acceptance of refugees.
Frans van der Lugt arrived in Syria in 1966. He is not the only religious or clergy martyred in that war, but his work, dedication and longevity made him well-known. Today, Jesuits from many parts of the world remain in Syria.
A Lebanese Jesuit, Fady Cidiac, of the Middle East Province, wrote, “Frans was given the chance to leave Homs, but he refused to do so. . . I stand in complete awe in front of our brother Jesuits in Syria who refuse to flee the country. Guided by our Lord carrying his cross, they lovingly share the fate of many, many Syrians.”
They are there because Jesus would be there, praying alongside Muslims and Christians alike.