When I learnt of Father Frans van der Lugt SJ’s death I was tempted to hate.
I could imagine his killers – their faces, their features, the colour of their clothes, the repeated ritual words that would have come out of their mouths at the moment they knocked at his house in Al Bustan and then shot him. I imagined I could smell the dusty carpets on which they would have slept just before shooting an innocent man. Why would an Islamist rebel group in Homs kill a priest, a Jesuit, a Dutch man who decided to move to Syria fifty years ago and stayed for the rest of his life? He arrived when he was in his late twenties and fell in love with Syria, the same beautiful country where I was born 37 years ago. I lived for most of my life in Rome, raised in a mixed family with an Italian mother and a Syrian father. That kind of a mix of cultures that Father Frans would have appreciated a lot.
I fully understood why a man of profound spirituality would decide to stay in such a place. Syria was not just a beautiful archaeological site with rich and well-preserved antiquities. It was also a magical place where you could find different minorities living together. Armenians, Christians, Druze, even a tiny Aramaic-speaking community, all living happily in a predominantly Muslim country.
His pictures can still be found in many churches, including the one in which I was abducted whilst interviewing Father François Murad, a Franciscan priest. It was April 3, 2013, and we were in Gassanyeh, 50 kilometres north of Homs. I was there with three other Italian journalists. The church in the monastery was dedicated to St. Simeon Stylites and was on the top of a verdant hill in Syria’s greenest region. That day the wind was chilly and the sky was heavy. A breeze blew over the desecrated statues: a beheaded Virgin Mary, a broken altar and a crucifix that had been pulled down. A dog was slaughtered in the sacristy.
Jabhat al Nusra, the same that ruined the church, and, most sadly, killed Father François in June 2013. Then Father Frans in April 2014. Why? This same question stayed in my head for months after I heard about his assassination.
Why did they kill priests; unarmed, wise men? When I learnt about Father Francois’ death, I could not understand if I was more angry or scared. I realised how close to the end of my life I may have been myself when I was threatened with death by my captor, the same man who ordered the murder of Father François. This man pretended to be an authentic religious man, a pious Muslim. But there’s no written instruction in the Koran to kill priests, quite the opposite.
He was aware of what happened to Father François but decided to stay in a besieged part of the Syrian city of Homs during the civil war. While bombs fell, people around him died of hunger. He stayed because he cared about his community. He launched an appeal to the international community to send help to the Syrians. He sent video messages from his empty kitchen after spending months providing food for the families of Homs. He was asked by many to leave but stayed.
He was convinced that sharing a sense of fatigue and hunger and sore muscles made people feel united, similar and connected. No matter if they had different ages, gender, religions or whether they were fit, disabled or elderly. For days he travelled with young people over rough terrain and they covered substantial distances. Borders were explored, physically and mentally. They danced, sang, talked, and reflected. Thousands of young people – Muslims and Christians – took part in these walks. It was for all of these reasons that when Father Frans was killed, I was tempted to hate. But then I thought of how he served the Syrians for fifty years, so now what can the Syrians do for him?
Firstly, to stop hating others. This is the main message he worked to deliver until his last breath. It’s not a simple message in a country at war. The conflict in Syria began in 2011 with protests by part of the civil society against a dictatorship that has been in power for over 40 years. The war is now ending in 2019 with the same regime remaining in power. Meanwhile, over 500,000 people have died, alongside Father Frans. To keep his memory alive, recently in Germany and the Netherlands Syrian youngsters have organised various treks with a new name: a “Frans’ hike”.
As for me, in 2018 I wrote a novel – La ragazza di Homs, or The Girl from Homs. It’s the story of a young woman who grew up in the old city of Homs, where she was taught English in a school run by a Dutch Jesuit. He was a man of peace who she will never forget even during the darkest moments of a personal and national tragedy.