ROME (CNS) – A 75-year-old Dutch Jesuit who refused to leave war-torn Syria, instead staying in Homs to help the poor and homeless, was beaten by armed men and killed with two bullets to the head, according to an email sent by the Jesuits' Middle East province to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome.
Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had worked in Syria since 1966, declined suggestions to leave because he wanted to help Syria's suffering civilians -- "Christians and Muslims – anyone in need," said Father Giuseppe Bellucci, head of the Jesuits' press office.
The email, reporting that armed men had taken Father Van der Lugt, beaten him and then shot him dead in front of the Jesuit residence in Homs, was sent to the Jesuit headquarters April 7, Father Bellucci said. "That's all the information we have right now."
In a statement published later, Father Adolfo Nicolas, superior general of the Jesuits, and the staff of the Jesuits' headquarters expressed their sorrow "for the brutal assassination of a man who dedicated his life to the poorest and neediest, especially in Homs, and who did not want to abandon them even at times of great danger."
"He always spoke of peace and reconciliation," the statement said, "and he opened his doors to all those asking help without distinction of race or religion. 'I don't see Muslims or Christians,' he used to say, 'but only human beings. I am the only priest and the only foreigner in this place, but I don't feel like a foreigner.'"
The Jesuits prayed that "his sacrifice would bring the fruit of peace and that it would be a further stimulus for silencing the weapons and setting aside hatred."
Father Van der Lugt became known around the world after appealing for aid for the people of the besieged city of Homs in a video posted on YouTube in late January.
The United Nations supervised an evacuation of about 1,400 people from Homs in early February; arriving in Jordan, the refugees confirmed Father Van der Lugt's accounts of people, especially young children, starving to death.
Speaking to Catholic News Service by telephone Feb. 6, the Jesuit had said: "There has been no food. People are hungry and waiting for help. No injured people have been allowed to leave. Families have been hoping to get out of the siege and out of the fighting between the two sides."
"The wounded have not received proper treatment, so healing has been difficult. Newborns die very quickly because of a lack of milk," he said. "There have been cases of death due to hunger and starvation."
In Syria, Jesuit Refugee Service announced it would close for three days after Father Van der Lugt's death.
"Father Frans was a beacon for all of us; he did not only preach about love and reconciliation but he lived it out every day – in humility and with compassion for all – until the very end," said Father Peter Balleis, JRS International director.