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

#MeToo moment in Hyderabad Urdu varsity? Two girl students seek action against authorities

Counterview Desk
Has the #MeToo movement reached Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MAANU)? It would seem so if a recent letter by newly-appointed chancellor Firoz Bakht Ahmed to MAANU vice-chancellor Dr Aslam Parvaiz is any indication. Seeking reinstatement of two girl victims of “sexual harassment and humiliation”, the letter specifically names head of the department of the Media Centre for Journalism, suspecting, the problem could be much deeper.
Text of the letter: It is a matter of utmost perturbation for me to receive the two representations from the girls studying in the MCJ (Media Center for Journalism) regarding their sexual and subsequently, mental and social harassment at the hands of Prof Ehtesham Ahmad Khan, the HOD, MCJ.
We do not know, how many girls have been exploited by him and preferred to be silent for saving their family’s honour; however, there are two brave girls who stood to the depraved advances and misuse by Prof Ehtesham and came up with written complai…

"Ineligible" funding of Sardar Statue in Gujarat: CAG tells Central PSUs, it's not a heritage CSR activity

By Our Representative
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, in its recent report on Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSE), has qualified public sector undertakings’ (PSUs') funding the 182-metre world’s highest Sardar Statue, currently being constructed in the Narmada river downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam as an “ineligible” corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity.

Gujarat BJP MLAs, youth leader "incited" attack on North Indians: Cong releases video

Counterview Desk
Senior Gujarat Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil, currently in charge of Bihar and national spokesperson, All-India Congress Committee, has sent a legal notice to chief minister Vijay Rupani threatening criminal case and civil defamation suit for accusing him with "baseless statement" that he was responsible for attacks on north Indians in Gujarat.

29th "NRC-related" suicide in Assam, as Nirod Baran Das takes his life by hanging on a fan

By Our Representative
Reporting 29th case of National Register of Citizens (NRC)-driven suicide in Assam, one of India’s human rights campaign sites has said that, on October 20, tragedy struck Kharupetia town in Darrang district of Assam, when a retired school teacher and advocate Nirod Baran Das “took his life by hanging himself to a fan in his home.” The report adds, “The NRC process has so far claimed over two dozen such lives in the past four months alone.”

"Highly irregular" for PSUs to fund Sardar Statue under Corporate Social Responsibility

Counterview Desk
In a letter to I Srinivas, secretary, Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Government of India, former secretary (economic affairs), Ministry of Finance, EAS Sarma, has raised questions on the funding of the Sardar Patel statue in South Gujarat by Central Public Sector Undertaking (CPSUs) relying on the Comptroller and Auditor General report (No 18/2018).

Murder of Tamil Nadu teenage Dalit girl: "Stoic silence" despite #MeToo movement

Counterview Desk
Brinelle D'souza, who is with the Centre for Health and Mental Health, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has prepared a strong statement to protest the brutal murder of 13-year-old Rajalakshmi. "Other than a few media reports, this gruesome killing has not caught national attention despite a very vibrant #MeToo campaign currently underway", regrets D'souza.

Post-MJ Akbar resignation: #MeToo movement and fears of backlash

By Sheshu Babu*
For the last few days, #MeToo movement has picked up momentum and many women are coming out with horrific tales of severe harassment in their past lives. They are not afraid anymore to expose famous persons including those at ministerial levels. As a senior journalist Neeraja Chowdhury opined (“An exit, a beginning”, October 18, 2018, indianexpress.com), "The #MeToo revelations are like the eruption of a volcano which was imminent, given the journey working women have covered. It was not easy to make public what they had gone through,and take on powerful men.”

Bank account frozen, raid on Amnesty office: Govt of India "treating" human rights NGOs like criminal enterprises

By Abhirr VP*
Amnesty India’s bank accounts have been frozen by the Enforcement Directorate, effectively stopping its work. Amnesty India is thus the latest target of the government’s assault on civil society in the country. The accounts of Greenpeace India were frozen earlier this month.

J&K Governor's rule: BJP's "failure" to go ahead with 44-plus strategy

By Syed Mujtaba Hussian*
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) continues to witness cataclysm of events ever since the killing of editor-in-chief of “Rising Kashmir”, Shujaat Bukhari, followed by the BJP’s deliberated parting of ways with its coalition partner, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and imposition of Governor rule.

World Bank clarifies: Its 26th rank to India not for universal access to power but for ease of doing business

By Our Representative
In a major embarrassment to the Government of India, the World Bank has reportedly clarified that it has not ranked India 26th out of 130 countries for providing power to its population. The top international banker’s clarification comes following Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal’s claim that India has “improved to 26 position from 99” in access to electricity in just one year.