Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt, who gained renown for his insistence on staying in Syria’s besieged city of Homs, has been shot dead by a masked gunman.
The motive for his murder was unclear, although Syria’s main opposition bloc and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime traded blame for the killing.
Van der Lugt, 75, had become a well-known figure in the Old City of Homs, respected by many for his solidarity with residents of the rebel-held area under a government siege for nearly two years.
He refused to leave despite constant shelling and dwindling supplies, insisting Syria was his home and he wanted to be with the country’s citizens in their time of need.
“I can confirm that he’s been killed,” Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Dutch Jesuit Order, told AFP by phone.
“A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head. In the street in front of his house,” he said, adding that the priest would be buried in Syria “according to his wishes”.
– ‘Guard wounded’ –
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the shooting death Monday of a well-known Dutch priest in Syria as an “inhumane act of violence.”
Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN chief “demands that warring parties and their supporters ensure that civilians are protected, regardless of their religion, community or ethnic affiliation.”
The opposition National Council said a “masked gunman” wounded Van der Lugt’s guard from the rebel Free Syrian Army when he stormed the priest’s Jesuit monastery and killed him.
Van der Lugt spent nearly five decades in Syria, and told AFP in February that he considered the country to be his home.
“The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties,” he said.
He stayed on even as some 1,400 people were evacuated during a UN-supervised operation that began on February 7 and also saw limited supplies of food brought into the city.
Government forces have besieged Homs’s Old City for nearly two years, leaving those unable to leave in increasingly dire circumstances.
“The faces of people you see in the street are weak and yellow. Their bodies are weakened and have lost their strength,” Van der Lugt said before the UN operation.
“What should we do, die of hunger?”
The siege and shelling whittled away the Old City’s population, including a Christian community that shrunk from tens of thousands to just 66, according to the Dutch priest.
Father Frans arrived in Syria in 1966 after spending two years in Lebanon studying Arabic.
He lived in a Jesuit monastery, where he ministered remaining Christians and tried to help poor families — Muslims and Christians alike.
“I don’t see people as Muslims or Christian, I see a human being first and foremost,” he told AFP two months ago.
– ‘Man of peace’ –
The Vatican praised Van der Lugt as a “man of peace,” and expressed “great pain” over his death.
“This is the death of a man of peace, who showed great courage in remaining loyal to the Syrian people despite an extremely risky and difficult situation,” spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
“In this moment of great pain, we also express our great pride and gratitude at having had a brother who was so close to the suffering.”
Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans mourned the priest on his Facebook page.
“The man that’s brought nothing but good in Homs, who became a Syrian among Syrians and refused to leave his people in the lurch, even when things became life-threatening, has been murdered in a cowardly manner,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “saddened” by the news of Van der Lugt’s death and commended him for having “worked to mitigate the immense suffering in the city.”
The office of Ahmad Jarba, president of the opposition National Council, condemned the murder “in the strongest terms”.
It said the Assad regime was “ultimately responsible for this crime, as the only beneficiary of Father Frans’s death”.
Assad himself was quoted on Monday as saying the “project of political Islam has failed” in Syria, where more than 150,000 people have been killed in a three-year conflict with rebels that have come to be dominated by Islamists, ranging from moderates to radicals.
State news agency SANA said the priest’s assassination was the work of “armed terrorist groups”, the regime’s term for rebels.