Killing of Dutch priest in Syria laden with symbolism

'Father Frans' offered refuge to Christians, Muslims in war-ravaged Old City in Homs

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BEIRUT -- The Rev. Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who became a symbol of suffering and compassion in the war-ravaged Old City district of Homs, was shot to death Monday morning by a lone gunman, according to members of his order.

The killing came amid growing disputes between Syrian insurgents blockaded in the Old City -- those who want to accept an amnesty from the government in exchange for laying down their arms, and those who do not.

After Syrian government forces isolated and laid siege to the rebel-held Old City for more than a year, a truce in January allowed evacuation of 1,500 people, both civilians and fighters. But Father Frans, as he was known, insisted on remaining in the monastery where he had lived for decades, offering refuge to Muslim and Christian families alike and sharing their deprivation and trauma.

The killer's identity and motives were not known, but the attack carried a heavy symbolic importance. Though he was European, Father Frans, 72, had come to be considered part of Syrian society and was well known in and around Homs, including among local insurgents in the Old City. He survived there long after foreign fighters of the Islamic extremist group Nusra Front moved in and raised new fears for the few remaining Christians.

But now, something had changed, and he could no longer be protected. Fingers quickly pointed in all directions.

"The death of the priest is a scandal for the rebels," said anti-government activist Mahmoud Taha in Talbiseh, a village near Homs where Jesuits run a center for the elderly. Mr. Taha speculated that the local Homs fighters had become radicalized. "They no longer accept anyone but those who are like them," he said.

But anti-government activist Amir Bader, in the Old City, countered that the killing was being investigated and did not represent the insurgents there, most of whom did not regard the priest as an enemy.

"Maybe some fanatic shot him," Mr. Bader said, "or some regime associate did it, so the regime will show all the Christians: 'Look what will happen to any of you if you support the revolution like Father Frans.' "

Syrian Christians have not been of one mind about their country's conflict, which began with mass protests in 2011. Some have expressed sympathy with protesters, while Christian leaders at first sought to stay neutral.

But many Christians, seeing Islamist extremists gain power within the insurgency, have increasingly stuck with President Bashar Assad's regime.

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