Middle East

Syria: Dutch priest Fr van der Lugt shot dead in Homs

Father Frans van der Lugt inside a monastery where he kept items he had rescued from damaged churches in Homs - 2 February 2014
Image caption Fr van der Lugt arrived in Syria in 1966 and considered it to be his home

A Dutch priest well known for refusing to leave the besieged Syrian city of Homs has been shot dead by a gunman.

Frans van der Lugt, who was in his 70s, had become a renowned figure in the rebel-held area that has been blockaded by government forces for nearly two years.

He had refused to be evacuated, saying he would not leave Homs while there were still Christians in the city.

The motive behind Fr van der Lugt's killing is unclear.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said he was shot twice in the head.

Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Dutch Jesuit Order, confirmed to AFP news agency that Fr van der Lugt had been killed.

"A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head. In the street in front of his house," Mr Stuyt said.

Fr van der Lugt spent nearly five decades in Syria and considered the country to be his home.

"The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties," he told AFP in February.

He stayed on even as some 1,400 people were evacuated from the city during a UN-supervised operation earlier this year.

A Jesuit, Fr van der Lugt arrived in Syria in 1966 after spending two years in Lebanon studying Arabic.

He lived in a Jesuit monastery, where he ministered to the area's remaining Christians and tried to help poor families.

"I don't see people as Muslims or Christian, I see a human being first and foremost," he told reporters.

Murder 'cowardly'

In a statement, the Vatican praised Fr van der Lugt as a "man of peace," and expressed "great pain" over his death.

"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 said.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans called the murder "cowardly" and said Mr Van der Lugt had "brought nothing but good to Homs."

"Fr Frans deserves our thanks and our respect. He must be able to count on our commitment to help end this misery," Mr Timmermans added.

Those who knew him have also paid tribute on social media such as Twitter.

Peter Bouckeart, Emergency Director of Human Rights Watch, called the killing "horrible", while the BBC's Lyse Doucet said "terrible news... During Feb evacuation, refused to leave, saying wanted to stay with his people... RIP".