HOMS, Syria — And then there were 23.
Just 23 Christians, most of them elderly, left alive in the besieged Old City of Homs when a masked gunman killed the beloved Dutch priest who’d consoled them during nearly two years of government bombardment and rebel-imposed isolation, when food supplies disappeared, when their lone doctor fell ill with cancer. Throughout it all, he counseled hope.
“I drank scotch with him almost daily. He’d have just one glass,” recalled George Ibrahim, 75, who’d rescued a stash of Johnnie Walker Black Label from his shop. “Near the end, I was talking to Father Frans and he was telling me to be patient. This is going to stop.”
That end came in early May when the government and rebels agreed to a truce and the rebels pulled out. But the Rev. Frans van der Lugt was not there to mark the transition. He’d been gunned down 31 days earlier, April 7, in the Jesuit monastery that he refused to abandon, even when boiled grass and leaves were all that was left to eat. Now as life returns to the ruined heart of what’s been dubbed the “capital of the revolution” against President Bashar Assad, the priest’s presence runs like a bright current through the tales of privation from those who survived.
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“Father Frans was neutral. He didn’t back any side,” said George Ghandour, 45, who helped bury van der Lugt’s body only steps from the spot in the courtyard where he died. “He aided everyone, Christian and Muslim, young and old. When the crisis began, five Muslim families moved into the monastery and he took care of them.”
The reason for van der Lugt’s slaying is unknown. The esteem in which he was held by Homs’ majority Sunni Muslims makes the murder all the more perplexing to six Christian survivors of the siege interviewed by McClatchy during a two-day visit to their neighborhood of Hamadiya.
When fighting began in Homs in May 2011, there were 60,000 Christians living in the Old City. As the fighting raged, and the rebels lost ground in other districts, they were pushed into the Old City. Most of the Christian population fled. By June 2012, when rebels closed the exits to prevent more people from leaving, only 102 Christians remained.
The rebels and the local population lived uneasily together. Then, late last year, as the insurgents became increasingly desperate as their food stocks dwindled, things changed. Christians began facing beatings, threats and thefts of their own meager supplies.
The only witness to van der Lugt’s slaying — who declined to be interviewed — told others that the lone gunman fired a single AK-47 shot into the priest’s head after ordering him to sit in a plastic chair in the monastery courtyard. The killer then left without a word.
The gunman “insisted on seeing him … Father Frans heard the voices, came out and asked what’s going on,” said Nazam Kanawati, 50, a civil engineer who arrived minutes after the slaying. “The gunman said, ‘You should come with me.’ Father Frans replied, ‘I’m not going with you, especially when I can’t see your face.’ ”
“The gunman said, ‘Oh, you’re not coming? Then sit down.’ He arrived with the gun already cocked. He just shot him,” Kanawati said.
Like other survivors, Kanawati said he believes the killer was a local man because virtually all of the rebels came from Homs.
Of the 102 Christians who were in the neighborhood after rebels closed the exits, 27 had died by the time most of the rest straggled out in a U.N.-brokered evacuation in February, leaving just van der Lugt and 23 others.
Some of those who stayed were too ill or too old to crawl to the evacuation area through a network of tunnels dug by the rebels, said Ghandour. Others, like Ghandour, stayed to care for elderly parents or simply refused to abandon their homes.
As the rebels’ own food ran low, survivors said, the rebels began pressuring Frans to make a video appeal to Pope Francis that could be posted on the Internet.
“The rebels thought Father Frans had the power to ask the pope to send food and the food would be here the next day,” said Kanawati. “But he refused. He did not want to use the Christian community or his power to get food for them. He didn’t want the Christians used.”
Eventually, however, van der Lugt agreed to make the video, but he “asked for food for everyone. He wasn’t speaking as a Christian priest,” recalled Kanawati, who lost 77 pounds caring for his elderly parents.
“We don’t want to die,” the priest said in the video.
Van der Lugt’s grave has become a shrine for Christians returning to the devastated neighborhood. It is covered by flagstones scavenged by Kanawati from destroyed buildings, and flanked by a statue of St. George and by photographs of the priest.
The plastic chair in which van der Lugt died stands nearby, adorned with a small bunch of plastic flowers.
“He is still here. He is with us,” said the Rev. Ziyad Hilal, a Jesuit colleague of van der Lugt. “Now this place has become a place of pilgrimage.”