Frans van der Lugt (1938 – 2014) was a Jesuit priest and psychologist. Originally from the Netherlands, he came to Syria in 1966, where he founded numerous social initiatives. His constant objective was to bring people together through shared experiences, transcending all their differences. In this spirit, he organised the first Al-Maseer (Arab. »hike«) in 1968. The idea behind it was simple: by hiking together, people of different backgrounds and ways of life would meet at eye level and share the experience of pushing their physical limits. Soon hundreds of people from all over Syria and around the world came to join the hikes, which often lasted several days. Until today, people in Syria continue to hike together in his memory. Throughout his life, Abuna Frans (Arab. »our father Frans«) remained faithful to his mission of achieving peaceful coexistence through creating encounters outside the confines of politics and religion. Even after the outbreak of the civil war he refused to leave Syria and was murdered in 2014 in the besieged city of Homs.
Franciscus Joseph Wilhelmus van der Lugt, known as Frans van der Lugt or Pater Frans (10 April 1938 – 7 April 2014), was a Jesuit priest from the Netherlands, who established a community centre and farm near the city of Homs, Syria, where he worked for the betterment of people with disabilities and for harmony among Christian and Muslim People. He was shot dead in the garden of the community centre in 2014.
Van der Lugt was born into a banker's family and grew up in Amsterdam. His father was Godefridus Wilhelmus Antonius van der Lugt, president of the Nederlandsche Landbouwbank. His brother Godfried van der Lugt became a top executive with the Postbank and later the ING Group. Van der Lugt studied as a psychotherapist but left the Netherlands for the Middle East in the 1960s, where he joined the Jesuits and spent two years in Lebanon where he studied Arabic. In 1966 he went to Syria, where he lived for nearly fifty years.
Van der Lugt started a community center and farm in 1980, the Al-Ard Center, just outside the city of Homs. The farm had vineyards and gardens in which much of the work was done by people with disabilities, providing an unprecedented resource in a society in which such people are usually hidden from view. In reconciling people from different religious backgrounds, van der Lugt emphasised the humanity of people as the common ground, rather than stressing commonality in the theologies of different faiths. He saw connection with the earth as part of a common bond. To this end, he conducted annual eight-day treks across the mountains for teenagers of all faiths.
After the siege of Homs, van der Lugt cared for the sick and the hungry. He gained international exposure at the beginning of 2014 when he made a number of YouTube videos, asking the international community for help for the citizens of the besieged city. He refused to leave, despite the dangerous situation. In February, The Economist reported that he was probably the last European in the city and stayed because he was "the shepherd of [his] flock": He declined being evacuated during a UN operation in 2014 that saved 1400 people from the besieged city.
Van der Lugt was known for helping Christians and Muslims alike; the Al-Ard Center aimed to foster dialog between people of different faiths. In an interview in 2012, he explained how they held a church service after a bombardment; by this time, he said, all the Catholics had left, leaving only Orthodox Christians and Muslims to celebrate Palm Sunday in his church. The imam preached at the service. Van der Lugt later said that the sermon had removed from him any residual tendencies to place emphasis on dogma.
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