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  • » 02/05/2014, 00.00

    SYRIA

    Jesuit priest says people in Homs are starving

    Paul Dakiki

    Despite the war, Fr Frans Van der Lugt never left Homs. Attacked by both regime and rebel forces, the Jesuit monastery where he lives has been open to everyone, Christian or Muslim. He is the last priest left with the city's last 66 faithful. After more than a year ago of siege, residents are going mad and dying. Both regime and rebels must build trust and work together.

    Damascus (AsiaNews) - People are dying of hunger in the Old City of Homs, said Fr Frans van der Lugt, a 75-year-old priest, in a plea to the international community.

    Last week, just as the peace talks on Syria (Geneva II) discussed possible humanitarian corridors in some areas of the country (including Homs), a video was posted online in which the priest, sitting in front the altar of his church, called on the world to remember that Syrians are suffering and that several are going "mad with hunger."

    Only a few thousand people still live in the old city, which has been under rebel control since June 2012. Since then, government forces have prevented supplies from coming into the area with snipers making it very difficult for people to move in the streets.

    Because the video came from a rebel-held area, some have dismissed it as propaganda. However, what Fr Van der Lugt says goes beyond partisanship.

    Born on 10 April 1938 in the Netherlands, Father Frans joined the Society of Jesus on 7 September 1959 and was ordained on 29 May 1971.

    A member of the Jesuit Province of the Near East, he has lived in Syria since 1966, working especially with young people. At present, he has been serving as the Episcopal vicar (not the bishop) in Homs, working with local Catholics who follow the Latin rite.

    Before the war, the Old City used to be home to 60,000 Christians. "Now I find myself alone with only 66 other Christians," Father Frans lamented.

    Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, he has not left the Jesuit monastery, even though both government forces and the opposition have attacked it.

    Despite the precarious and dangerous situation, he has welcomed everyone, Muslims and Christians, pro-regime and rebels. Dozens of people have stayed with him for months on end.

    As hunger took hold of the city over the past year and more, he has always been able to provide food to everyone. In recent weeks though, he has not had even have a piece of bread to give. Several people have already died so far from hunger.

    "Muslims and Christians," the priest said, "are living under difficult and painful conditions" with some children starving or dying from lack of medicine, he said.

    "We suffer greatly but most of all from hunger," he explained. Yet, "We love life and we don't want to die or to drown in an ocean of death and suffering".

    In a bitter reference to the international mobilisation against Syria's chemical weapons and last week's failure in Geneva to secure humanitarian corridors in Homs, a yellow sign near the altar could be seen in the video, saying: "Dying of hunger is more painful than from chemical weapons".

    Although the Old City of Homs was at the centre of discussions between the Syrian regime and opposition at peace talks in Geneva last week, the two sides failed to reach a deal. Whilst the regime offered women and children a safe passage out of the area, it also insisted that men register their names before leaving the city.

    Fearing retaliation, the rebels refused, whilst the women were against leaving their husbands. Thus, the siege continues with its load of hunger and madness.

    Fr Van der Lugt, who is also a trained psychotherapist, said that, already suffering extreme stress from the war, hunger has been "turning people insane".

    "Some people are now suffering from mental illness; neurosis, panic attacks, psychotic and schizophrenic episodes and paranoia," he said.

    In interviews with the Telegraph and the Orient le Jour, Fr Frans could not hide a certain scepticism about peace talks, which are expected to resume next week.

    In his view, the delegations staying at the great hotels of Montreux and Geneva "talk about us, but they don't live with us. They should talk about what we think and not about what is good for them."

    For the clergyman, the regime and the rebels must build mutual trust. "If there is trust, then the negotiations will be productive. If there isn't, they won't succeed whether they're held in Geneva, Paris, Honolulu or London," he explained.

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    See also

    14/04/2014 SYRIA
    I will miss you Fr Frans, you inspired us all, says Syrian Jesuit
    A young priest from the Society of Jesus remembers the life and work of Fr Frans van der Lugt, who was killed in Homs after he refused to abandon residents beleaguered by hunger and war. "He gave and continues to give everything for the Church, Syria, and peace. His story and qualities made him an exceptional missionary and witness to the Gospel." Reprinted courtesy of 'The Jesuit Post'.

    15/04/2014 SYRIA
    Fr Frans van der Lugt died in Syria, for Syria
    A memorial Mass is celebrated in Beirut for the priest killed in Homs. In a message from the superior of Jesuits, Fr Frans is remembered as "a man of reconciliation between generations, between communities, between Christians and Muslims, between cultural and political tendencies."

    08/04/2014 SYRIA - INDIA - EGYPT
    For Indian Jesuit, the murder of Fr Frans is a loss for Muslims in Syria
    Fr Bimal Kerketta, a priest who runs a school in Minya (Egypt) tells AsiaNews about his friendship with the Jesuit clergyman killed yesterday in Homs. "He was killed in the monastery garden," a fellow Jesuit in Homs says.

    08/05/2014 SYRIA
    As rebels leave Homs, opposition calls for more US weapons
    After nearly two years of siege, a deal brokered by Iran and the UN brings relief to rebels and residents prostrated by hunger and lack of medicines. In Washington, a Syrian opposition leader wants "effective weapons," slams next month's elections, held "on the dead bodies of Syrians".

    05/05/2014 SYRIA
    As an agreement ends the siege of Homs, hunger becomes a new weapon of war
    After nearly two years of siege, rebels will be able to leave the city, allowing in aid and care for civilians and the wounded. In exchange, two pro-regime Shia villages will get aid. UN accuses parties of not allowing humanitarian aid. Massive aid is needed for internally displaced and refugees in region's host countries.



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