I remember Sunday prayers conducted by Frans van der Lugt in a small church in Bustan Al-Diwan in Homs in the 1990s. The news of his death came as a shock to many who knew him. According to the Vatican, the Dutch Jesuit priest was beaten and shot yesterday by unidentified gunmen in his monastery. He lived in Syria since 1966.
In the neighbourhood, we called him "Abouna Frans" (Our Father Frans.) I was around seven years old when our family moved to the area. He was one of the tallest people I knew. In his most recent pictures, he seems shorter, as if the years of war caused that. But even before the war, he would always walk with his back curved as if bearing all the sins of his small parish. He was skinny with grey hair and always wearing his prescription glasses. He had an astonishing memory, remembering all the names of his parishioners and details of problems they were going through. Father Frans would often stop them to discretely ask if they managed to overcome an issue they shared with him.
In Bustan Al-Diwan, kids didn't like skipping church. You could listen to Father Frans and meet many of your friends. His masses were happy. He read the Bible in clear Arabic Fusha (literary Arabic) but in between readings, he would speak and explain God in Syrian dialect. He made God somehow linguistically closer to you.. All kids and probably adults loved and adored Father Frans. He would usually smile, but he was not overly joyful, not the Santa Clause type. He would keep a distance but would joke often. Kids no doubt adored him for the summer camps he organised yearly in the hills of Tartous, where teenagers would go on long daily hikes with him, singing songs on the way.
In the 1980s with my late uncle Abed El Masih Attieh, Father Frans established "Al-Ard," a centre that provided healthcare and education for children with disabilities from the Homs countryside. The centre also promoted interfaith dialogue. Everyone was welcomed there. Attieh, a civil engineer himself, designed charming little domed-shaped buildings. He donated the 23 hectares of land full of grape vines, almond and olive trees. Al Ard did not only provide care for the children and jobs for people living in the rural area but also produced one of the best wines in Syria. In the beginning of the uprising, the centre hosted many of the displaced population fleeing Qusair. Access later became difficult due to heavy clashes between pro-government and opposition forces, and activities were suspended.
We left our church and Homs when I was eleven and moved to Poland. But I continued to follow stories about him from afar especially after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. Friends would tell me that in the beginning when violence escalated and government forces began using live ammunition, he would turn on the engine of his little white old Volkswagen Beetle car and tour the streets of Homs in search of the wounded. He would bring them back to the church and provide basic medical care.
There is an amateur video of Father Frans released in January 2014, sitting by the alter from where he would so often preach. You can notice several small pickets describing the situation in the area known as "Old Homs": eight cases of death because of malnutrition, 100 cases in need of urgent medical surgeries, 250 families facing death by hunger. “We meet every Sunday in this Church for the service, and on Wednesdays we meet for a cup of tea but without sugar because now there's no sugar,” he explained with the simplicity that he was always known for. “We, Muslims and Christians are living in difficult and painful circumstances. We're suffering from a lot of problems. One of the biggest problems is hunger. People can't find food. There's nothing more difficult than seeing parents looking for food for their children. We need help.” He talked and described hunger, a new phenomenon for Syrians. Until 2012 or 2013, food was never an issue in Syria as the country has always been a country of plenty. Even poor families rarely suffered from hunger, with rich agricultural lands. “We love life, we love to live. And we don’t like to die in the sea of pain and death. Thank you,” Father Frans concluded in the video.
He followed the values he preached for all his life: helping the poor and not abandoning the needy. I was not surprised when my relatives told me that Father Frans refused to leave Syria. For me, it was only logical that he stayed in Homs. And I would just say, "Of course, he will not leave. He would always teach us to stand by the weak. Remember?"
Though my views about God and religion have changed in the few years after I left Syria (somehow God stopped being an appealing figure when it was framed and introduced by the Polish Catholic Church in grand and cold cathedrals, rather than in the coziness of Bustan Al-Diwan Church,) I continued to feel a haunting sense of pride that it was Father Frans who first taught me the basic principles of my family's faith.
There is an overwhelming sense of disbelief that he is gone. "He was a legend in Homs. Heartbreaking. I still don't understand such a random act of hatred towards such a person. Syria is dying away and will slowly stop being my home," said Malek Cheikh, a physician in Baltimore originally from Homs who had met Father Frans.
There are several YouTube videos of Father Frans delivering a message, as if he knew the power of viral videos. He is featured sitting on a stool, explaining concepts he believed in accompanied by the sounds of fired mortars in the background, like this one in which he explains how he came to love Syrians. “I shared with Syrians many beautiful moments, and received a lot. Now we see that these people are suffering a lot. The same way I shared with these people their treasures, I also want also to share with them their fear, pain, and death. Participation requires presence, staying in touch, being close. This is why I like to be in the centre, to move from fear to peace, from sadness to joy, from death to life.” He believed that better days in Syria will finally come.
Fadi Hallisso, a Syrian co-founder of Basma wa Zeitouneh, an aid organisation providing help to Syrian refugees in Beirut, who knew Father Frans said, “I was one of the hundreds of young people that Frans had an impact on in one way or another. He was a man who was disliked by the traditional Christian community. There was a weird magic around him, very energetic and determined. His optimism had no limits. He loved Syrians and Muslims.” Halliso recalls an interview he did with Father Frans in 2011. “He hoped that the Catholic Church will abandon the colonial idea of being a preaching organisation that aims to teach the locals. "I hope to see the Church embrace the principle of shared life and solidarity with the people," he said.
I cannot help but ask myself who might have killed him. He was loved by many but also loathed by many: probably by both the Shabiha for helping the Sunni population, as well as by many of the extremists - It is a fact that his monastery was in the rebel controlled area. For the community he lead, it is of little comfort that he died according to the ideas he preached. But there was something very Christian in the way he lived his life.
Rima Marrouch is a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. She previously worked as a Beirut-based producer for NPR, and has reported from Syria and Libya for the LA Times. Rima tweets @RimaMarr and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org