In Syria's devastated Homs, residents are flocking in pilgrimage to the grave of a murdered Dutch priest whose legendary kindness was a rare glimpse of humanity in the country's brutal war.
Father Frans van der Lugt’s final resting place is a quiet garden in the Jesuit monastery, where he loved to relax, not far from the spot where the 75-year-old was shot dead by an unknown attacker.
It has become a place of pilgrimage for residents who knew or heard of the priest who called Syria home for nearly five decades and was killed April 7.
He chose to stay in the Old City along with hundreds of civilians trapped in a government siege of the rebel-held area for nearly two years, under near-daily bombardment.
He even launched a video appeal on the YouTube website urging international assistance in helping those trapped in Homs.
“He was a real saint, he was so helpful,” said Kinan Mitri, who is gathering testimonies for a book about the priest, the only Westerner who stayed behind in besieged Homs.
“He sacrificed for others.”
Visitors flock to Father Frans’s grave by the dozen, unable to contain their tears. Some make the sign of the cross, while others sink into a sad meditation.
“He took my sick father on his bicycle to the (makeshift rebel) hospital despite the bombing,” one man recalled, overcome with emotion.
– ‘Last to leave’ –
“He always said ‘I’m not Syrian, but I love Syria as though it were my own country. I will be the last to leave,'” added the man, who declined to give his name.
In February, Father Frans spoke to AFP via Skype from Homs, saying “the Syrian people have given me so much… I want to share their pain and their difficulties.”
Near his grave, which is adorned with flowers, Father Frans smiles out from a large photo in which a toddler is seen clinging to his leg.
A book of condolences is filled with entries, including one reading: “Peace be unto your soul, you are a symbol of humanity.”
Even the youngsters of the area have indelible memories of the priest, who spent 50 years in Syria launching agricultural projects to help the poor and conducting prayers with Christians and Muslims.
“For Palm Sunday in 2012, despite the bombing, he came from the convent here in Bustan al-Diwan to us in Bab al-Sebaa to celebrate mass because all our priests had left,” 15-year-old Sharbel recalled.
Residents also recall the sight of the elderly priest on his bicycle distributing water and bread to families trapped at home during the siege.
In the stone monastery, his small and simple room has been left as it was, just a mattress, a portrait of the Virgin Mary and child, and a shelf full of books.
Having trained as a psychotherapist, Father Frans was also a shoulder to lean on for those suffering from depression.
– Father figure –
“I told him my secrets and he comforted me; he was a father to me,” said Jumana, a Muslim woman who sheltered at the monastery with her sister and children for months.
“He made no distinction between Christians and Muslims and we celebrated all the religious festivals together,” said the 35-year-old, who lost her husband during a raid on the city.
“One time, he looked for a small inflatable swimming pool for the children to put here on the patio. He was overjoyed to see them splashing in the water,” she said.
“When they cried because of the bombing, he would invent games to distract them.”
At the beginning of the siege of the Old City, Father Frans welcomed a large number of displaced residents into the monastery, where they sheltered until most were evacuated under a deal in February.
His murder a few months later remains unsolved.
He is said to have been killed by a masked gunman, who knocked on the door, then murdered the priest when he answered before escaping.
Neighbours discovered Father Frans in a pool of blood, shot in the head. Syria’s regime and rebels have each accused the other of the murder, but no one has claimed responsibility.
After his death, only a handful of people remained at the monastery, including Marie, who cooked meals there.
Spotting her, one of the monastery’s former residents moved towards her, saying “you look well now,” and handing her some bread.
“Thank God,” she replied. “But what we’re missing is Father Frans.”
Everyone’s eyes reddened and a heavy silence descended.