Days after Dutch priest Fr. Frans van der Lugt S.J. was murdered in Syria, a close young friend recalled his saintly life, noting both his personal holiness and extraordinary advances in Christian-Muslim relations.
Wael Salibi, 26, recalled how when the Christian area in Homs was taken over by rebels, 66,000 of the faithful "left their home, and just few of them stayed there. He was the only priest, he stayed in his church.”
“Just months before he died, he said ‘I can’t leave my people, I can’t leave my church, I am director of this church, how can I leave them?’” Salibi told CNA on April 11.
Salibi, who hails from the now-ravished city of Homs, grew up as a close friend and pupil of Fr. Frans, who was brutally killed on April 7. Days before his 76th birthday, an unknown gunman entered his church, beat him and shot him in the head.
For the past three years Syria has been embroiled in conflict which sprang up after citizens protested the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of an estimated 140,000 people. There are currently 2.6 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and an additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
Currently a refugee living and studying in Rome, Salibi fled his city just a year and a half ago – following a two-week religious visit to Europe – after receiving a call from his mother telling him not to return.
Recalling his life growing up with the priest, Salibi explained that because Fr. Frans had been living and working in Syria since 1966, his family formed close ties with the priest, who would often visit after celebrating Christmas Mass in order to wish his father a happy birthday, and was at one point the spiritual director for his sister.
“This is what makes Fr. Frans special,” Salibi noted, “because he influenced thousands of people, and he remembered all people with little details, and he listened to others.”
On how the priest worked tirelessly for the unity amongst Christians and Muslims in the area, Salibi said that he advanced these relations through two main projects he began during his nearly 50 years of ministry in the country.
The first initiative of Fr. Frans was a project entitled “Al-Maseer” meaning “marching,” Salibi continued, in which groups of 300 at a time, would come from various regions around Syria to work together and discover new parts of the country.
Convening every 2 to 3 months, the group would usually walk together over the weekend and frequently went to little-known areas in order to discover different parts of the country, Salibi went on to say, recalling how one summer the group made a ten day trip in which they walked over 60 kilometers and slept in both churches and mosques along the way.
“I know Syria and I love Syria because of him,” Salibi expressed, observing how “we never felt like he wasn’t Syrian. I think he’s Syrian more than anyone I know.”
Often when the group felt tired because of all the walking, they would be surprised because Fr. Frans was “70 years old and he was the first one to arrive,” Salibi observed, recounting how the Dutchman would always tell them “ilal amam,” meaning “keep going.”
“He always told us…it didn’t just give us like, power, he also made us keep going with our lives,” the young Syrain explained, emphasizing that “I will never forget that word from him. He told us how to be strong.”
Referring to the second project Fr. Frans initiated, Salibi explained that the name was “Al-ard” meaning “the earth” or “the land,” which took place in the countryside outside of Homs, and is a place where the priest would bring handicapped from all the area, both Muslim and Christian, and provide different work and activities for them to do.
Before working in the project, Salibi explain that “I was afraid of” handicapped people, but that after working in the project “I felt like oh my God there is no difference, no difference between religion, no difference between handicapped people, no difference between humans.”
“He taught me how much humility and love, and how we can find love, God, in the love of people.”
Fr. Frans also built an area of prayer for the project that was “not a church, not a mosque,” but a place where all people went “just to pray,” the young Syrian recounted. “People from all Syria, and also outside of Syria, went there to relax, to find their peace, to be closer to God.”
“We didn’t know when we (were) suffering, when we lost the road, who was walking with him, whether he was Christian or Muslim, we are just sons of God and sons of this land, Syria,” Salibi went on to say, observing how “that was his target, to put Muslims and Christians together.”
Recalling how when the war broke out in 2011 Fr. Frans opened the doors of his church to both Muslims and Christians, the priest’s friend noted that he would give them food, saying “‘I didn’t come to Syria to help just Christians.’”
“And he stayed there. And he stayed there in the ending before he died just with 24 Christians, he didn’t leave them, and when he died, the Muslim people were sad more than the Christians in that neighborhood.”
Describing a previous conversation Fr. van der Lugt had with another youth at the base of a famous tomb in the area, Salibi recounted how when the youth asked the priest if he wanted to be buried in Syria or in Holland, “Fr. Frans looked at him with a very serious look, and told him of course here in Syria.”
“My friend now he understands why he looked at him in that way. It was not a joke. And that’s what happened. Fr. Frans died there and they put him in his church…where we used to drink coffee with him, and where he listened to thousands of people with love, with interest.”
“He changed the lives of thousands of people… he taught us the meaning of love not just with words, but with life.”
When he was murdered, Salibi highlighted that the people “didn’t think about who killed him, they thought about sadness and accepted the love because of the teaching of Fr. Frans, who taught them don’t hate, don’t take revenge, and death is not the ending, it’s just passing to be with God. So that’s what we learned from him.”
The night before he died, Salibi revealed that the priest wrote a reflection on how we are preparing ourselves for Easter, saying that “’This feast is the way to pass from this to the life.’”
“’We see the life from deep, dark hole, but the people in this dark, black hole can see this huge light. We wish this to rise up to Syria and ‘ilal amam,’ ‘keep going.’”
“That’s the last thing he wrote, like he knew he would send us this message,” his young friend observed.
“It’s not important if he died in that way, by assassin (or if) he be martyr,” Salibi affirmed, “his life and the way he loved and spent his life is enough to make him a Saint, and he died in that way so I think he is extra-Saint.”
Explaining how everyday there are hundreds martyrs in Syria like Fr. Frans, including his own cousin who three months ago was killed outside of the village for being a Christian, Salibi explained that Fr. Frans’ story “gets this attention because all people loved him a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot.”
“I think he wants also with his death to send this message to people, because he wrote a few months ago, ‘we love to live. We don’t love to die. We love to live. We have (the) right to live a normal life,’” Salibi went on to say.
Continuing, he emphasized his belief that with his death Fr. Frans also wants to remind those “who are used to this war in Syria and everyday death… how important (it is) to try everything can do to stop this war, this tragic war. And especially in a very peaceful way,” and to “forgive.”
“We don’t want any war in Syria, we don’t want more war,” he said, “we just want to say everyone push for peace. To make this peace.”
In the midst of the continuous conflict, Salibi revealed that he finds hope in the last thing that Fr. Frans wrote, saying that we are preparing ourselves for Easter, and that “this is a symbol of passing from death to life. The life around us (is a) very deeply dark hole, but people around us they look to the huge light coming from up.”
“He taught us this. Always we have hope, we shouldn’t say no, now Fr. Frans died and there is no hope,” the Syrian observed.
“No, he gives us with his death more hope than before. Like he still supported the peaceful solution until his death, until he died, and go ahead. That’s the last word he says, keep going.”