BEIRUT -- A Dutch priest who lived in Syria for almost five decades and refused to evacuate this year from the rebel-held Old City area of Homs was shot and killed at his residence early Monday, according to official accounts.
Father Frans Van der Lugt was eulogized by the Vatican as a “man of peace” who stayed behind in the ravaged Old City to assist a dwindling population of Christians and Muslims suffering the devastating effects of an almost two-year siege. Like Pope Francis, he was a Jesuit.
“This is the death of a man of peace, who showed great courage in remaining loyal to the Syrian people despite an extremely risky and difficult situation,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters.
His death prompted an outpouring of grief on Twitter and other social media forums. Pictures of the priest’s body, in white clerical garb and placed in a coffin, were also circulated on the Web.
The motive for killing Van der Lugt, who was in his 70s, was not clear.
The Syrian state media blamed “armed terrorist groups’’ -- the government’s description for armed rebels.
Various opposition groups denied involvement and alleged that the government killed the priest in a bid to inflame sectarian tensions and justify military bombardment of civilian districts. A statement from the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front condemned the killing as a “heinous act.”
According to the official media, “terrorists” opened fire on the priest at dawn at the Jesuit residence in the Bustan al-Diwan district in the Old City of Homs. The area is under the control of Islamist rebels.
Other accounts indicated that one or two gunmen arrived at the priest’s door, forced him outside and shot him in the head.
In February, the bespectacled Jesuit declined to leave the Old City as the United Nations arranged for the evacuation of more than 1,400 people, including a remnant population of fewer than 100 Christians. The quarter was once home to thousands of Christians and many churches. Most of the churches, like area mosques, have suffered heavy damage, clerics said.
The priest said it was his duty to remain with his “flock.”
Van der Lugt, reportedly a trained psychotherapist, occasionally spoke to journalists and helped publicize the plight of people living under siege in Homs, suffering from a lack of food, medical attention and other basic services.
The Syrian military had cut off the area for almost two years, trapping rebels and several thousand civilians inside the warren of streets and alleys in the sprawling Old City, now largely reduced to rubble by shelling and gun battles. Snipers from both sides prevent entry and exit from the area.
“I do not accept that we drown in a sea of hunger, letting the waves of death drag us under,” the priest said this year in a widely circulated video clip. “We love life. We want to live. And we do not want to sink in a sea of pain and suffering.”
His killing could spark new concerns for the fate of Syria’s Christian minority, who accounted for about 10% of the population before the armed conflict erupted three years ago. Many Christians express fears for their community’s existence should Islamist-led rebels manage to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad.
The Assad family’s more than four-decade rule has featured a crushing of political dissent but a tolerance for religious minorities. Syria became a haven for tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing church bombings and other militant Islamist attacks in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Last month, a furor erupted in the Armenian diaspora community worldwide when Syrian rebels, including militants aligned with the Nusra Front, surged across the border from Turkey and overran the historic Armenian Christian town of Kassab in Syria’s northwestern Latakia province. Most of the population fled south to the sanctuary of government-controlled territory, community leaders said.
Opposition spokesmen denied reports that the Christians of Kassab were targeted by rebels. Fierce fighting continues in the area as the Syrian military battles to recapture the town.
Church officials say Islamist rebels have also been behind a wave of kidnappings of Christian clerics and nuns. A pair of Christian bishops and an Italian Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall’Oglio, remain missing after being abducted in northern Syria. A group of 13 nuns kidnapped by Syrian rebels were released last month in exchange for prisoners held by the government.
Bulos is a special correspondent.