Skip to main content

Martyred in Syria, this Dutch Jesuit sheltered victims of conflict, Muslims and Christians

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
Beirut: Miryiam (name changed) spoke in a steely voice, but with passion as tears welled in her eyes, “Yes, they killed him! But for me, Abouna Frans will never die!” Those words of a young lady are a fitting tribute to a person who meant so much to her and to many others. Her profound sentiments, echo the feelings of hundreds of others who were impacted by Abouna Frans.
“I went for retreats with him. He listened to my pain and brokenness; when I cried, he cried too. He was truly a Father to me!” She goes on and on narrating one incident after another- each time unfolding the holiness, the humanness, the sensitivity and the grace that were the hall-marks of a modern day saint.
Fr Frans Van Der Lugt was brutally gunned down in Homs Syria, five years ago, on April 7, 2014. ‘Abouna Frans’, as he was lovingly called, was a Dutch Jesuit who 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 almost fifty years (from 1976) in Syria. He founded the Al-Ard institute in Homs, where handicapped children of all religions and ethnic groups found a warm and welcoming haven.
In 2011, when civil war erupted in Syria, he chose to remain in the country, among the people he loved, suffering the shortages and pains of the conflict, alongside both Muslims and Christians. As the fighting intensified, Fr Frans moved to the Jesuit residence in Boustan-Diwan (the inner city). From there 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 home for those who had nowhere to go: Muslims and Christians; old and young. It was a ‘safe place’ for them and Fr Frans was their refuge. His message to all was one of hope: of mercy and reconciliation, of justice and of peace!
The Jesuits of Netherlands and Flanders recently produced an animated film on Abouna Frans. The film begins when he is being killed and then he gradually looks back into his life. In the film he makes a powerful appeal to the whole world: only love triumphs and it must come first! (Click HERE for text.)
Abouna Frans was an extraordinary person: fully human, fully alive. He was warm and compassionate to all; to the youth, he was an inspirer and motivator, who never tired of hiking, trekking and long walks in the beauty of nature; to the elderly, he was a friend and mentor; little children loved to cling to his long legs; for Muslims and Christians, for atheists and agnostics, for those belonged to different sects and rites, he was a bridge-builder, a reconciler, 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. They simply loved him. He had the courage of his convictions and he communicated this unequivocally.
Every year, the World Health Organisation celebrates April 7 as World Health Day. It was significant that Abouna Frans was martyred on that day. He was a healer – he embraced all those who suffered from illness – be it physical, mental or spiritual. Like Miryiam, an encounter with him brought healing, a great consolation, a movement towards wholeness. The theme of World Health Day 2019 is ‘Universal Health Coverage: Everyone, Everywhere’. Abouna Frans lived this theme as he reached out in very tangible ways – to all who needed him.
Above all, he was a man of deep prayer who was able to communicate the ‘joy of the Gospels’ to all. The sparse room he lived in, is a testimony to his frugal and simple lifestyle. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation on holiness ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ says,
“We are inspired to act by the example of all those priests, religious, and laity who devote themselves to proclamation and to serving others with great fidelity, often at the risk of their lives and certainly at the cost of their comfort. Their testimony reminds us that, more than bureaucrats and functionaries, the Church needs passionate missionaries, enthusiastic about sharing true life. The saints surprise us; they confound us, because by their lives they urge us to abandon a dull and dreary mediocrity.”
Words befitting to Abouna Frans because he truly epitomised holiness.
On April 6, hundreds of people, from all walks of life, gathered in Homs, to celebrate the memory of Abouna Frans. For many who were touched by him, this was the first time, they were coming together after his death and the years of war. At the homily during the Eucharistic Celebration, Fr Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, shared with the Congregation extracts from Fr. Frans’ homily, at his First Mass on May 30, 1971, in which he said, “only when my hands are empty that I can really receive the other!”.
Prophetic words indeed from a man, who like his master Jesus of Nazareth, lived these words, joyously and unconditionally embracing others. On 7 April, the fifth anniversary of the martyrdom of Abouna Frans, hundreds more are expected to gather at the St Joseph’s Jesuit Church in Beirut for a special Thanksgiving Eucharist which will be presided over by Fr. Arturo Sosa.
Abouna Frans comes as a soothing balm to our broken and fragmented world. His voice was one of reconciliation and peace. He transcended the narrow confines of religion and rituals; everyone to him was a sister or brother – a human being. He gave to all a meaning and purpose in life. He accompanied them, encompassed and communicated love and ultimately, like Jesus, laid down his life for his people and for a greater good! He continues to live in the hearts and minds of many! The words of Miryiam keep re-echoing, “Abouna Frans will never die!”
---
*Human rights activist from Gujarat, currently in Beirut on a brief visit; earlier spent three years working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East. During the assignment visited Homs a few times; has also met and spoken to several people who were very close to Abouna Frans. Contact:cedricprakash@gmail.com

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.”

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.”

'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.

Whither right to food? Social security scheme allocation for woman, child 'reduced'

Counterview Desk Pointing out that women and children have been ignored in the Union Budget 2021-22, the advocacy group Right to Food Campaign (RtFC) has said that the Government of India should have taken into account the fact that even after the lockdown was lifted, distress among marginalized communities continues, with people having lower incomes and reduced food consumption.

NAPM extends support to Indian, Aussie citizen groups 'opposing' Adani ventures

#StopAdani action in Australia  Counterview Desk  The civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), extending solidarity to the global campaign by the Youth Action to Stop Adani (YAStA), held in recently in Australia and India, has said that the effort was to bring more attention to the struggle aboriginal, indigenous peoples, farmers, working class and other oppressed communities against allegedly anti-people multinational corporate conglomerates.