The Syrian government and rebel groups are pointing fingers in the assassination of Dutch Jesuit Priest Francis Van Der Lugt in his garden in Homs. No group has taken responsibility for the April 7 killing, in which a masked gunman entered the monastery and shot the priest in the head.
Known as Father Frans, 75-year-old Van Der Lugt lived in Syria for 50 years and was determined to stay in the rebel-held Old City district of Homs to help suffering Muslim and Christian civilians even as 1,500 people evacuated the area, The Catholic Register said. He spoke out about hunger and starvation in war-torn Homs through social media.
“He was a ray of joy and hope to all those trapped in the Old City of Homs, waiting for yet another UN permission to evacuate,” Jesuit Priest Ziad Hillal told Aid to the Church in Need. According to World Watch Monitor, 60,000 Christians used to live in the Old City section of Homs. Now there are fewer than 30.
“When I leave, nothing will be left of this building,” Van Der Lugt told Dutch radio in February. “And I don’t want to leave alone the 28 Christians that have remained.”
State media outlet SANA blamed “terrorists” for the Van Der Lugt’s killing, while Syria’s main opposition bloc called the killing a “criminal act” by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“We hold the regime ultimately responsible for this crime as the only beneficiary of Father Francis’ death,” the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. The rebels said they were protecting the priest and that a guard from their Free Syrian Army was shot in the chest when Van Der Lugt was attacked, The New York Times reported.
Syrian rebel groups vary in extremism. Many of Syria’s Christian and Muslim minorities fear Islamic extremists are gaining influence among the rebels. Todd Daniels, International Christian Concern’s regional manager for the Middle East, said there has been an influx of foreign fighters into Syria who could have carried out the attack.
In response to the attack, Pope Francis asked everyone to pray for peace in Syria. “His brutal murder filled me with deep sadness and made me think again of all the people who suffer and are dying in that martyred country, already too long a victim of a bloody conflict that continues to sow death and destruction,” he said.