Father van der Lugt embraced the smell of the sheep

This spring marks the three-year point in the Syrian civil war. During that time, the casualties have been so numerous and the dangers so high that the United Nations in January stopped updating the number of dead.

Since then, however, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates conservatively that more than 150,000 people have died — with about 30 percent of those being civilians.

One of the most recent civilian losses is Dutch Jesuit priest Father Frans van der Lugt, who, according to Father Alex Basili, Jesuit provincial in the Middle East and the Maghreb, was “abducted by armed men who beat him and then killed him with two bullets to the head in front of the Jesuit residence in Homs” on the morning of April 7.

According to Vatican Radio, Father van der Lugt had lived in Syria for nearly 50 years. He was involved in religious dialogue and, in the 1980s, opened a center of spirituality outside of Homs, which included a home for 40 Syrian children with mental disabilities.

Ever present to the Syrian people during the last three years of strife, Father van der Lugt posted a video online in January in which he pleaded for assistance from the international community to save the people in the city of Homs (in the middle of a more than yearlong siege) from starvation.

“People can’t find food,” he said. “There is nothing harder than seeing parents in the street looking for food for their children.”

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When a truce was struck that same month and people evacuated, Father van der Lugt refused to leave, instead staying with his people left behind — the epitome of a shepherd who embraces the smell of his sheep.

“The Syrian people have given me so much — so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have,” the priest said in February. “If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties.”

Soon after Father van der Lugt’s death was reported, Vatican Spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said the priest “died as a man of peace, who with great courage in an extremely dangerous and difficult situation, wanted to remain faithful to the Syrian people to whom he had dedicated so many years of his life and spiritual service.”

He added: “Where people die, their faithful shepherds also die with them. In this time of great sorrow, we express our participation in prayer, but also great pride and gratitude for having had a brother so close to the most suffering in the testimony of the love of Jesus to the end.”

This week, as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and great triumph over sin, let’s pray that the suffering the Syrian people have had to endure for so long will soon come to an end. And let’s pray, too, for Father van der Lugt, who will be remembered by all as a beacon of hope and an earthly reflection of Jesus’ compassion and love.