I remember Sunday prayers conducted by Frans van der Lugt in the 1990s, in a small church in Bustan Al-Diwan in Homs. 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 neighborhood, 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, his hair was grey, and he always wore his prescription glasses. He had an astonishing memory, remembering all the names of his parishioners, and details about their problems. Father Frans would often stop them, asking discretely whether they managed to overcome an issue they spoke to him about.
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 Fusha Arabic (literary Arabic), but in between readings, he would speak and explain about God in Syrian dialect. He made God linguistically closer, somehow. All the kids and probably the adults as well, loved and adored Father Frans. He would usually smile, but he was not overly joyful. He was not the Santa Clause type. He would keep a certain distance but would still often joke. Kids no doubt adored him for the summer camps he organized yearly in the hills of Tartous, where teenagers would go on long daily hikes with him, singing songs on the way.
In the 1980s, along with my late uncle Abed El Masih Attieh, Father Frans established "Al-Ard," a center that provided healthcare and education for children with disabilities from the Homs countryside. The center also promoted interfaith dialogue. Everyone was welcome there. Attieh, a civil engineer himself, designed charming little domed 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 that rural area, but also produced one of the best wines in Syria. In the beginning of the uprising, the center hosted many of those fleeing Qusair. However, access became difficult due to heavy clashes between pro-government and opposition forces, and the activities of the center were suspended.
We left our church and Homs when I was eleven and moved to Poland. However, I continued to follow the stories about Father Frans from afar, especially after the beginning 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 for wounded people. 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 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 due to malnutrition, 100 cases in need of urgent medical surgeries, 250 families facing starvation. “We meet every Sunday in this Church for the service, and on Wednesdays we meet for a cup of tea, without sugar because now there's no sugar”, he explained with his well known simplicity.
“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 with vast fertile lands. Even poor families rarely suffered from hunger. “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.
Throughout his life he was true to the values he preached: 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. 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 presented 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 and who knew 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. In the background we hear the sounds of mortars. Videos 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 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 center, to move from fear to peace, from sadness to joy, from death to life.” He believed that better days will eventually come in Syria.
Fadi Hallisso, Syrian co-founder of Basma wa Zeitouneh, an aid organization providing help to Syrian refugees in Beirut, and 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. He was 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 organization that aims to teach the locals". "I hope to see the Church embrace the principle of shared life and solidarity with the people," Father Frans 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 (regime thugs) for helping the Sunni population, as well as by many of the extremists. His monastery was known to be 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.