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Gunman kills Dutch priest in Syrian city of Homs

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Gunman kills Dutch priest in Syrian city of Homs

Apr-12-2014 at 12:56 PM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

In this photo taken on March 28, 2014 and released by a neutral activist youth group, About our Neighborhood Hamidiyeh Simply, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Dutch Father Francis Van Der Lugt, 75, in Homs, Syria. A masked gunman opened fire on Van Der Lugt, a well-known elderly Dutch priest, in the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, killing him instantly, a fellow priest and an activist group said. (AP Photo/About our Neighborhood Hamidiyeh Simply)

Gunman kills Dutch priest in Syrian city of Homs
by Associated Press, April 7, 2014.

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A beloved, elderly Dutch priest who made headlines this year with a desperate plea for aid for civilians trapped in the besieged Syrian city of Homs was assassinated Monday by a masked gunman who shot him at his monastery, the latest attack targeting Christian clergymen in the country's civil war.

The killing of Father Francis Van Der Lugt — a Jesuit, the same order as Pope Francis — underscored fears among many of Syria's Christian and Muslim minorities for the fate of their communities as Islamic extremists gain influence among rebels seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.

The 75-year-old Van Der Lugt, an Arabic speaker, had lived in Syria for 50 years and refused to leave Homs even as hundreds of civilians were evacuated from rebel-held districts of Homs that have been besieged for more than a year by Assad's forces. Van Der Lugt lived in the monastery in one of those neighborhoods, Bustan al-Diwan.

He appeared to have been directly targeted in the early morning attack, according to several people who were in the monastery when the attack occurred. A single gunman walked into the monastery, entered the garden and shot him in the head, said Rev. Ziad Hillal.

"I am truly shocked. A man of peace has been murdered," Hillal said in a phone interview from Homs with the Vatican Radio.

A person, who has lived in the monastery with the slain priest said he was buried in the convent's garden late Monday. The person who passed the information of the priest's burial on the phone did not want to be identified for fear of being targeted.

The motives for the attack were not known, and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the killing.

Over the past year, hard-line rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have become more influential and dominant among the opposition fighters in the central city, as in many other areas of Syria.

Another Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio of Italy has been missing since July after traveling to meet Islamic militants who now rule the eastern city of Raqqa. A year ago, two Greek Orthodox bishops were seized from their car by gunmen outside the northern city of Aleppo and have been missing since.

An activist based in the blockaded rebel-held area of Homs said rebel fighters were shocked by the priest's death.

"The man was living with us, eating with us, sleeping with us. He didn't leave, even when the blockade was eased," Beibars Tilawi said via Skype. Regardless of the rebels' views toward Christians, the priest was well-liked for his efforts to get the blockade lifted and alleviate widespread suffering and hunger among civilians, Tilawi said.

The state news agency SANA blamed "terrorists" for the priest's death but offered no details. The government uses the term for rebels.

Syrian's main opposition bloc called the killing a "criminal act" and blamed 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 government launched a punishing crackdown on Homs, pounding the gunmen holed up in the city's central districts and encircling them with checkpoints, preventing food and medicine from reaching their areas. Hundreds have left the blockaded areas during a series of U.N. evacuation, but Van Der Lugt repeatedly refused to leave until all Christians were evacuated, his friends said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killing of the elderly priest as "an inhumane act of violence against a man who heroically stood by the people of Syria amid sieges and growing difficulties," according to a statement released by the spokesperson for the secretary-general. Ban demanded that "the warring parties and their supporters ensure that civilians are protected, regardless of their religion, community or ethnic affiliation."

It's not immediately clear how many Christians remain trapped in rebel-held parts of Homs. In February, there were about 200 Christian families, according to Syrian Red Crescent figures at the time.

Van Der Lugt lived with 24 other Christians in the monastery. He sought to raise widespread attention to the suffering of civilians in blockaded Homs.

"Hunger defeated us! We can see its signs drawn over the faces," Van Der Lugt wrote on Jan. 25 on a Syrian Christian Facebook group page.

"People are wandering the streets screaming; We are starving, we need food!," the priest wrote in a statement published in English and French. "We are living a scary reality. Human beings turn into wild animals living in the wild."

The friend said Van Der Lugt also fretted about the future of Christian properties inside rebel-held parts of Homs.

Albert Abdul-Massih, who worked alongside Van Der Lugt, said the slain priest held a doctorate in psychiatry and lived an austere life. His death is a big loss, he said.

"We learned humanity from him, and he used to love Muslims as much as he loves Christians," Abdul-Massih added. "He was treating people for free and he was a fluent Arabic speaker."

"He called me two days ago and told me that he is hopeful that the siege will end soon," Abdul-Massih said.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the 75-year-old Van Der Lugt, was "a man of peace, who with great courage had wanted to remain faithful, in an extremely risky and difficult situation, to the Syrian people to whom he had dedicated, for a long time, his life and spiritual service."

In Belgium, the secretary of the Dutch Jesuit order, Father Jan Stuyt, said the slain priest had been living in Syria since the mid-1960s and was on good terms with the country's Muslim majority.

"He is like a martyr for the interreligious dialogue," Father Jan Stuyt said in a telephone interview with AP in Brussels.

In this undated photo released on Monday, April 7, 2014 by the anti-government activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Dutch Father Francis Van Der Lugt, 75, in Homs, Syria. A masked gunman opened fire on Van Der Lugt, a well-known, elderly Dutch priest in the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, killing him instantly, a fellow priest and an activist group said. (AP Photo/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

A Sunday, April 6, 2014 photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Syrian man helping a survivor out of a damaged building following a strike by Syrian warplanes, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

A Sunday, April 6, 2014 photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows civil defense rescue workers carrying the body of a victim of a Syrian government airstrike, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, black smoke and flame rise from the rooftop of a building that was, according to SANA, attacked by a mortar shelled by the Syrian rebels in Damascus, Syria, Saturday April 5, 2014. Al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, called on fighters to determine who killed his chief representative in Syria, a man many militant groups believe died at the hands of a rival militia, in a move that highlighted a conflict between rebels that has killed hundreds. (AP Photo/SANA)

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1. Een pater zoals Frans, daar is geen tweede van

Apr-12-2014 at 01:09 PM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

In reply to message #0
 
© anp. Pater Frans voor het jezuïetenklooster in Homs, waar hij ten tijde van de burgeroorlog verbleef.

Een pater zoals Frans, daar is geen tweede van
Door: Irene de Zwaan − 07/04/14.

Het nieuws dat de Nederlandse pater-jezuïet Frans van der Lugt vanochtend is doodgeschoten in de Syrische stad Homs, waar hij al ruim veertig jaar woonde, zorgt voor ongeloof en veel verdriet binnen de Syrische gemeenschap. 'Zijn gezicht straalde liefde uit.'

'Het was zo'n geweldig mens', zegt Rabia (45). Ze huilt zachtjes. 'Sorry hoor, ik ben nog helemaal van slag.' Vanochtend werd ze door haar familie in Homs gebeld met de mededeling dat pater Frans is vermoord. 'Ik kon het eerst niet geloven, maar het is echt waar. Het is een zwarte dag.'
© reuters.
Van der Lugt in gesprek met inwoners van Homs op 29 januari.

Rabia, die drie maanden geleden vanuit Homs naar Londen vluchtte en uit veiligheidsoverwegingen niet met haar echte naam in de krant wil, heeft de pater vaak ontmoet. 'Elke christen in Homs kende Frans. Hij stond heel dicht bij de mensen. Andere priesters hebben weleens de neiging om mensen onder dwang te bekeren, maar Frans had dat helemaal niet. Hij wilde gewoon goed doen, voor iedereen.'

Rabia somt op wat hij zoal deed: hij organiseerde kampen om mensen dichter bij elkaar te brengen, onderwees mensen over de bijbel, haalde donaties op voor de armen, verhuurde kamers voor een lage prijs aan studenten van het platteland en zette een boerderij op waar hij minderbedeelden liet werken.

50.000 flessen wijn
Dat laatste project, al-Ard (vertaald: het land), was een succes. De pater kreeg van de Syrische regering - met wie hij op goede voet stond - net buiten Homs een stuk land van vijftig hectare grond ter beschikking. Hij verbouwde er onder meer groenten en druiven voor wijnproductie (zo'n 50.000 flessen per jaar). Ook bevond zich een motel voor toeristen op het terrein, evenals sportvelden.

Toen de burgeroorlog in Syrië in 2011 uitbrak nam Van der Lugt zijn intrek in het jezuïetenklooster middenin de oude binnenstad van Homs, waar een hevige strijd geleverd werd tussen regeringstroepen en rebellen. 'Het was niet zozeer zijn keuze om niet te vertrekken', zegt Hanan Shamoun, een Syrische mensenrechtenactiviste in Nederland, die geregeld mailcontact had met de pater. 'Er waren in Homs mensen die hun huizen niet wilden verlaten en dus wilde Frans blijven. Om hen te helpen.'
© reuters.
Pater Frans op bezoek bij een gezin in het belegerde centrum van Homs.

Hij gaf ze te eten en drinken, vertelt Shamoun. Ook verleende hij psychische ondersteuning aan mensen die getraumatiseerd waren door de oorlog. 'Hij maakte geen onderscheid tussen christenen en moslims. Dat was zo bijzonder aan hem. Hij was wat dat betreft heel anders dan Syrische priesters. Die geven vanuit hun verheven positie wat bevelen, maar doen vervolgens niet veel. Pater Frans was iemand die de handen uit de mouwen stak. Zijn gezicht straalde liefde uit.'

Doodgeschoten
Het nieuws dat Frans van der Lugt is doodgeschoten sloeg bij de Syrische gemeenschap in als een bom. Vanochtend om 8 uur werd de pater in zijn klooster overvallen door een man die hem door het hoofd schoot. Het feit dat de man gemaskerd was, is voor Rabia een teken dat de dader de pater kende. 'Er wonen veel mensen in het klooster, de man die schoot wilde waarschijnlijk ongezien wegkomen.'

Hoewel het speculeren blijft, is de dader volgens Rabia een radicale rebel. 'Het stikt van de gewapende rebellen in de binnenstad van Homs. Iemand van het regeringsleger kan het niet geweest zijn. Die hebben zich in de drie jaar dat de burgeroorlog nu duurt nog nooit in het oude centrum van de stad vertoond.'

Ook Shamoun is ervan overtuigd dat de dader een radicale moslim is. 'Waarschijnlijk is het een gestoorde eenling, want het is niet in het belang van de oppositie om de pater te vermoorden. Dat is slecht voor hun reputatie. Ik denk dat de dader van mening is dat iedereen in de wereld moslim moet zijn. Hij zal het als een opdracht van god gezien hebben om de pater te doden.'

Onder dwang
Shamoun denkt dat Van der Lugt al langer in het vizier van islamitische rebellen stond. De noodkreet die de pater in januari van dit jaar op YouTube deed ('We willen hier niet sterven in een zee van ellende en leed') is volgens Shamoun onder dwang van een islamitische rebellengroep opgenomen. Het verbaasde haar dat de pater in het filmpje Arabisch sprak, terwijl hij zijn boodschappen normaal gesproken in het Engels verkondigde. 'Ook vond ik het vreemd dat er allemaal borden met Arabische kreten om hem heen stonden. Dat is niet de stijl van onze pater, maar eerder van de oppositie. Het YouTube-kanaal waarop het filmpje is geüpload is bovendien in handen van extremisten.'
© anp.
Van der Lugt in zijn klooster in Homs.

Rabia acht het ook niet onmogelijk dat zijn dood iets van doen heeft met het feit dat Van der Lugt een belangrijke rol speelde in het onderhandelingsproces tussen de Syrische regering, oppositie, Verenigde Naties en het Rode Kruis. 'Misschien heeft hij iets besloten dat verkeerd viel bij een van de partijen.' Ze zucht. 'We zullen het misschien wel nooit weten.'

Rabia denkt er niet snel een tweede pater Frans in Homs zal opduiken. 'Hij was echt een uitzonderlijk mens. Iemand die niet voor zelfverrijking ging, maar alles wat hij had inzette om anderen te helpen. Hij leefde een simpel leven. Zo verplaatste hij zich bijvoorbeeld altijd per voet of fiets. Ik zal hem nooit meer vergeten.'

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