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Gunman kills well-known, elderly Dutch priest in Syrian city of Homs

By Albert Aji

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 7 2014 8:23 a.m. MDT

In this undated photo released on Monday, April 7, 2014 by the anti-government activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Dutch Father Francis Van Der Lugt, 72, in Homs, Syria. A masked gunman opened fire on Van Der Lugt, a well-known, elderly Dutch priest in the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, killing him instantly, a fellow priest and an activist group said.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria — A masked gunman assassinated a well-known, elderly Dutch priest on Monday, shooting him in the head in the garden of a monastery where he lived in the central Syrian city of Homs on Monday, a fellow priest, an activist group and Syria's state-run media said.

Father Francis Van Der Lugt — a Jesuit, the same order as Pope Francis — had lived in Syria for decades and had refused to be evacuated with other civilians from the battleground city of Homs.

The motives for the attack were not known, and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the killing, which took place in Bustan al-Diwan, rebel-held neighborhood of Homs that has been blockaded for over a year by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But the fact that Van Der Lugt was gunned down in a rebel-held area will likely underscore fears of many in Syrian Christian and Muslim minorities for the fate of their communities should Assad's government be overthrown by the rebels. Over the past year, hard-line rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front have become more influential and dominant among the opposition fighters in the city.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the 75-year-old Van Der Lugt, was "a man of peace, who with great courage, had wanted to remain faithful, in an extremely risky and difficult situation, to the Syrian people to whom he had dedicated, for a long time, his life and spiritual service."

It appeared that Van Der Lugt was directly targeted. A single gunman walked into the monastery, entered the garden and shot him in the head, said Rev. Ziad Hillal, a priest, who was in the convent when the attacked occurred.

"I am truly shocked. A man of peace has been murdered," Hillal said in a phone interview from Homs with the Vatican Radio.

Van der Lugt's death was first reported by Homs-based priest Assad Nayyef, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the state-run news agency, SANA.

An activist based in a blockaded rebel-area said rebel fighters were shocked by the priest's death.

"The man was living with us, eating with us, sleeping with us. He didn't leave, even when the blockade was eased," said Beibars Tilawi said via Skype. Regardless of the rebels' views toward Christians, the priest was well-liked for his efforts to get the blockade lifted and alleviate widespread suffering and hunger among civilians, Tilawi said.

In Belgium, the secretary of the Dutch Jesuit order Father Jan Stuyt said the slain priest had been living in Syria since the mid-1960s and was on good terms with the country's Muslim majority.

"He is like a martyr for the interreligious dialogue," Father Jan Stuyt said in a telephone interview with AP in Brussels.

Van Der Lugt repeatedly refused to leave Bustan al-Diwan, despite the violence and a series of U.N. evacuations this year that helped hundreds leave blockaded Homs areas.

A friend of the slain priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety, said Van Der Lugt refused to leave until all Christians were evacuated. The priest lived with 24 other Christians in the monastery.

It's not immediately clear how many Christians remain trapped in rebel-held parts of Homs. In February, there were about 200 Christian families, according to Syrian Red Crescent figures at the time.

The elderly priest also sought to raise widespread attention to the suffering of civilians in blockaded Homs.

"Hunger defeated us! We can see its signs drawn over the faces," Van Der Lugt wrote on Jan. 25 on a Syrian Christian Facebook group page.

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