Dutch priest who saw Syria as home shot dead in Homs
Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt, who gained renown for his insistence on staying in Syria's besieged city of Homs, was shot dead there on Monday by an unknown gunman.
His death was reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria's state news agency SANA, and was confirmed by the Dutch Jesuit Order.
The motive for his murder was unclear.
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 that 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."
Stuyt said he was not aware of particular threats to van der Lugt, adding that the priest would be buried in Syria "according to his wishes".
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.
Homs's Old City has been besieged by government forces for nearly two years, creating increasing dire circumstances for those unable to leave.
"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 told AFP before the UN operation.
"What should we do, die of hunger?"
The siege and continued shelling in the city 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.
A Jesuit, Father Frans arrived in Syria in 1966 after spending two years in Lebanon studying Arabic.
He lived in a Jesuit monastery, where he ministered to the area's 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 in February.
In a statement, 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," Vatican 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," Lombardi said.
And Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans also 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.
"Father Frans deserves our thanks and our respect. He must be able to count on our contribution to help end this misery."
© 2014 AFP