Skip to main content

Syria continues to be battered, but compassion, courage and commitment of Abouna Frans his spirit lives on!

By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
Fr Frans Van Der Lugt was someone special: he was a complete human being. He was warm and compassionate to all; to the youth, he was an inspirer and motivator, who never tired of long walks; to the elderly, he was a friend and mentor; little children loved to cling to his long legs; for Muslims and Christians, he was a bridge-builder, a person who could draw the best out of them; for the spiritually weak and lost, he was a source of strength and a patient listener.
He was a true shepherd, always in the midst of his sheep, who smelled of them. He had the courage of his convictions- he communicated this unequivocally. Everybody loved their “Abouna Frans”. On April 7th 2014, he was brutally gunned down in Homs Syria. Today, three years after his assassination, one thing is certain the spirit of Abouna Frans lives on!
‘Abouna Frans’ was a Dutch Jesuit who devoted his life to the people of Syria; when civil war erupted there in 2011 he chose to remain in the country, suffering the shortages and pains of the conflict alongside both Muslims and Christians. He was born on April 10 1938 in The Hague. His father was a banker. In 1959, he entered the Society of Jesus and seven years later opted to serve as a Jesuit in the Middle East. With the exception of a short break to complete his doctorate in Psychology, he spent the rest of his life from 1976 in Syria. He founded the Al-Ard institute in Homs, where handicapped children of all religions and ethnic groups found a welcoming home.
His retirement years however were shattered with the civil war. As the fighting intensified, Fr Frans moved to the Jesuit residence in Boustan-Diwan (the inner city). From this residence, he shared the suffering of the inhabitants, refusing to leave, even as that part of the city continued to be bombed from all sides. His centre became a haven for those who had nowhere to go: Muslims and Christians; old and young. It was a haven for them and Fr Frans was their refuge. He was often seen on his cycle, visiting people in the bombarded areas of the city. His message to all was one of hope: of mercy and reconciliation, of justice and of peace!
The old city was under siege, because it was a stronghold of the rebels. No food supplies or other essential commodities were coming in; besides, people were not allowed in or out. Starvation claimed lives in this rebel enclave, though a relatively ‘normal’ life continued just streets away, in the government-held zones. Fr Frans existed on olives and broth fortified with weeds picked off the streets. “The faces of people you see in the street are weak and yellow,” he told a journalist “Their bodies are weakened and have lost their strength.”
Frans was killed on the day, which is annually and globally observed as World Health Day. Significantly, the focus this year is on ‘Depression’; with his training in psychology, he documented the spread of mental illness among those who found themselves besieged: “I try to help them not by analysing their problems, as the problems are obvious and there is no solution for them here. I listen to them and give as much food as I can.” Through his patient and understanding listening, he was able to touch the lives of people, to heal their brokenness; to be their beacon of hope when they despaired.
Last November, the JRS Core Staff from Homs had come to Sednaya for an in-service training led by their Project Director Fr. Magdi Seif. Many of them were in touch with or associated with Fr. Frans. The very mention of “Abouna Frans” generates a glow in their eyes and a sense of nostalgia envelops easily them. It is so obvious that their “Abouna” lives on in their hearts and minds- in a very profound way.
Ferial Barakat from Homs knew Abouna Frans for more than twenty-five years, since she first met him as a seventeen-year old, during a retreat. Since then she feels he was the major influence in her life. “For me, Abouna Frans is a great grace. Without him, my life was empty. He taught all of us that God is love. He made us realise that we all have our dignity and freedom. He introduced me to the Spiritual Exercises. He helped me to become a different and better person.” As Ferial shares her closeness to Abouna Frans, one can easily experience the spiritual depth of the man and the tremendous impact he had on the youth and on others.
Abouna Frans was gunned down just three days before what would have been his 76th birthday. Ferial and his legion of followers who lived outside the ‘old city’ heard about his tragic death. They however, could not come in. His Muslims and Christians friends, who lived around the Jesuit Centre, came together, despite the hostilities around them, to perform the last rites and to bury him in the compound of the Centre.
Today both Muslims and Christians revere Abouna Frans as a Saint. They will never forget his words “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”. This he did in full measure: he lived with them, he died for them. He once said, “I don’t see Muslims or Christians; I see above all, human beings”. An apt summary of his humaneness.
A couple of days after his death on April 9th, Pope Francis at the General Audience in Rome said “last Monday in Homs, Syria, Rev Fr Frans van der Lugt one of my Dutch Jesuit confreres was assassinated at the age 75. He arrived in Syria some 50 years ago and always did well to everyone generously and with love. He was therefore loved and highly esteemed by Christians and Muslims.
His brutal murder has deeply distressed me and has made me think again of the many people who are suffering and dying in that tormented country, my beloved Syria, which for too long has been the prey of a bloody conflict that continues to reap death and destruction. I also think of the many people who have been kidnapped, Christians and Muslims, Syrians and those from other countries, including bishops and priests. Let us ask the Lord that they may soon return to their loved ones and to their families and communities.
From my heart I invite you all to join me in prayer for peace in Syria and the region, and I launch a heartfelt appeal to the Syrian leaders and to the international community: Please, silence the weapons, put an end to the violence! No more war! No more destruction! May humanitarian laws be respected, may the people who need humanitarian assistance be cared for and may the desired peace be attained through dialogue and reconciliation.”
In the Bourj Hammoud area of Beirut, the JRS-run ‘FVDL Centre’ (named after Abouna Frans) provides education and accompaniment daily to more than six hundred Syrian refugee children and youth who live in the vicinity. At a special programme today, hundreds of children from the ages of 4-16 years ‘celebrated’ the memory of this great man with white balloons and a message of peace to the world with the words Faith, Vivid, Dream, Love – the initials of Fr. Frans. In Berlin, the #franshike has been drawing hundreds of Syrian and other youth for spiritually enriching days together. In London, a prayer service at Farm Street brought together people from all walks of life. There is plenty on social media about Abouna Frans today. He is surely not forgotten!
Syria continues to be battered. However, not all is lost. Thanks to the compassion, courage and commitment of Abouna Frans his spirit still lives on!
---
*Regional Advocacy & Communications Officer, Jesuit Refugee Service, MENA Regional Office, Beirut

Comments

TRENDING

Young environmentalist's arrest 'sinister', even parents not told of her whereabouts

By Our Representative  The Coalition for Environmental Justice in India (CEJI), a civil society network, has said that it is “highly disturbing” that Disha Ravi, a young woman climate activist from Bengaluru was “picked up” in what is referred to as a “closely guarded operation” of the Delhi police. Disha, 21, has been remanded to police custody for five days after she was taken from Bengaluru to Delhi.

Mukesh Ambani's earnings during Covid 'can lift' 40% informal workers out of poverty

By Dr Gian Singh*  The Inequality Virus Report released by Oxfam, a non-profit organization, on January 25, 2021 on the growing inequalities in different parts of the world, sheds light on the growing economic, educational, healthcare and gender inequalities in India. The report has revealed that the wealth of billionaires has increased by 35 per cent during the lockdown period in the country.

US forensic revelation enough evidence to release Sudha Bharadwaj, others: Civicus

Counterview Desk  Civicus, a Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organisations and activists claiming to have presence in 175 countries with 9,000 members and working for strengthening citizen action, has sought immediate release of Sudha Bharadwaj, arrested in 2018 under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and accused of having links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Golwalkar's views on tricolour, martyrs, minorities, caste as per RSS archives

By Shamsul Islam*  First time in the history of independent India, the in-charge minister of the Cultural Ministry in the current Modi government, Prahlad Singh Patel, has glorified MS Golwalkar, second supremo of the RSS and the most prominent ideologue of the RSS till date, on his birth anniversary, February 19. In a tweet he wrote : “Remembering a great thinker, scholar, and remarkable leader #MSGolwalkar on his birth anniversary. His thoughts will remain a source of inspiration & continue to guide generations.”

Evolution of Sardar Patel's understanding of those 'involved' in Gandhi's assassination

By Shamsul Islam*  As the world mourns the 73rd anniversary of MK Gandhi's assassination by Hindutva terrorists on January 30, 1948, RSS, the most prominent flag-bearer of Hindutva politics, whose cadres rule India today, is found reacting angrily to the reality – that the criminals who assassinated Gandhiji were not only part of the ideological world-view of Hindu Mahasabha (led by VD Savarkar) and RSS brand of Hindu nationalism but were also connected with these. 

No Election Commission safeguard against electromagnetic hacking of EVM: Study

Counterview Desk  Releasing a new study simultaneously in Chennai and Kolkata in view of the forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, the Citizens’ Commission on Elections (CCE) – a civil society initiative – has regretted “lack of integrity of EVM voting”, pointing out, the Election Commission of India (ECI) does not appear to safeguard against the possibilities of ‘side-channel attacks’, i.e, hacking electronic devices through electromagnetic and other methods.

20% of FIRs against journalists in 2020 alone, targeted attacks in 2021 'too many to count'

Counterview Desk  Condemning what it calls “alarming rise in state repression and clampdown on news outlets and journalists” that “expose” the anti-people nature of the establishment, India's top civil society network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has demanded “immediate release of arrested journalists, withdrawal of arbitrary charges and protection of media persons facing threats.”

Top academic claims he warned farmer leaders of Hindutva plot on Jan 26 morning

By Shamsul Islam* The photographs here show a Hindutva protagonist, Deep Sidhu, with his real masters. He is said to be the culprit who tried to derail the historic farmers' struggle by putting up a religious flag at Red Fort on January 26, with no Delhi police which works under the Indian home minister Amit Shah, a senior RSS cadre who is often described 'Iron Man' by Hindutva camp-followers. 

'Viability' of agricultural cooperatives vs govt proposed pro-corporate economic model

Dr Gian Singh* The farmer struggle started from Punjab against the promulgation of three agricultural ordinances by the Union government in June 2020 and the enactment of three bills by Parliament in September 2020 to replace these ordinances is unique in many respects. There is no other example of such a peaceful and democratic farmer struggle.