A small group of 28 Christians have chosen to stay in the ancient city of Homs in Syria, fearing that their properties will be completely destroyed if they leave.
Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt has decided to stay along with the believers for the same reasons. “When I leave,” he told Dutch NOS Radio 1, “nothing will be left of this building. And I don’t want to leave alone the 28 Christians who have remained.” The courageous priest has an additional motive for remaining in the war-torn city. He says, “I am here for all Syrians. When all Christians would leave, I would stay because I am here to serve all Syrians.”
He reports that in the part of Homs where he lives, “almost all houses are destroyed.” The people stay, he says, because otherwise nothing will remain of the houses, and the people will have no place to come back to when the conflict finally ends.
Van der Lugt told Radio1 that the food recently brought in by the UN, “isn’t enough. They brought pans and cloths the people didn’t need; we need rice and food. At our breakfast, we eat olives and drink tea. In the afternoon, we make soup with what grows between the stones on the street. Vegetables,” and then after hesitating, “green,” the Dutch expression for all kind of plants. “In the evening, we just see what we can get.”
He says that hunger is rampant, and even the rebels are losing motivation in the face of persistent food shortages. “My biggest danger is entering into despair. I must stay full of hope; then I will be able to help those around me.”
The priest recently came to the attention of the international news talking to several television stations, like Al Jazeera and RTL, after publishing a dramatic cry for help on YouTube just before the UN could start a relief operation in the city. “We want to live. We don’t want to die of pain and hunger,” the priest said in that video.
Van der Lugt, better known in Homs as Abouna Francis, has lived in the Middle East since 1966. After an initial posting in Lebanon, the priest settled in Homs, Syria in the early seventies. As the city of Homs came under fire in the ongoing civil war, the priest resolved to stay with his people. During the years before the war, the priest worked in education and helped people that were mentally handicapped. Since many of them could not or did not want to leave the city center, he chose to remain with his people. In the past year, the rebel-held old city has been surrounded and entirely sealed off by government troops. No one is allowed in; no one is allowed out. Officially, no food can be delivered in the city.
In an interview with the Telegraph newspaper some weeks ago, the priest stated that the pre-war population of 60,000 Christians living in the besieged part of Homs had been reduced to a mere 66 believers. The number has now dwindled to 28.
Before the war, Homs, a city between Damascus and Aleppo, boasted over 600,000 inhabitants. In the early months of 2011, Homs became the capital of the Syrian Arab Spring. Since then, fierce fighting has been taking place in and around the city. The city has been under siege by the government army since May 2011. Control of the various parts of the city has been constantly in flux as opposition fighters and government forces wage violent battles in the streets. The opposition has managed to maintain control over the old city, historically inhabited by a large Christian community, throughout the conflict.
Father, thank You for Frans van der Lugt, who has served You for so many years in Homs. We pray for him and this small handful of Your faithful followers who have chosen to remain. In their isolation, provide food and shelter and all the things they need to survive in this harsh existence. Protect them from harm and despair. Grow their faith, and use them as a witness to those around them of Your presence with them. And we pray for those who have fled to refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries; that You would sustain them there and bring peace to this land that they might return to their homes. Father, truly we are all sojourners in this world; our home is in heaven, but wherever we are, You are there with us. Thank You. In the name of Jesus our sure presence in all of life, Amen.