“Abouna Frans’ spirit lives on!”
- 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!
7th April 2017
Fr Cedric Prakash sj