Maronite Archbishop Samir Nasser of Damascus, Syria, during the 2010 synod of Bishops in Rome. (Photo by Piotr Spalek and CatholicPressPhoto.com)

Father Franz van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who made Syria his home for 48 years was murdered at his monastery in Homs on April 7. Because he was the last priest in a city that once had a flourishing Christian community, there was no priest to preside at his simple burial service in the monastery garden.

Now his tomb attracts large numbers of Muslims and Christian visitors alike, according to a letter circulated by Maronite Archbishop of Damascus Samir Nassar, which has been passed on to CatholicPhilly.com by Archbishop Charles Chaput.

“By his life and death, Father Franz shows the way to the future in Syria through a message of brotherhood among men and women,” Archbishop Nassar wrote. “Both in life and death Abouna (our Father) Franz is an apostle of love and peace embodying the life of his Master, witnessing the values of justice, truth and total self-giving.

“Father Franz advanced dialogue between Muslims and Christians, especially in youth ministry, retreats and gatherings,” Archbishop Nassar said. “He gave special care to the handicapped. He began an agricultural cooperative for the disabled, advocated for needed child care and assisted in the restoration of churches and parish centers in the small rural area.”

Father van der Lugt had every chance in the world to leave Homs before it was overrun by the Muslim extremists who are attempting to oust Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Shortly before the priest’s murder the United Nations evacuated Christians from the besieged city.

Christians were especially targeted by the rebels not only because of their religion but because as a group they did not support the rebellion, preferring to live under a secular dictatorship that practiced religious toleration, rather than Muslim extremists who did not.

Commenting after Father van der Lugt’s death, Pope Francis said the priest “always did good to all, with gratitude and love, and therefore he was loved and respected by Christians and Muslims. His brutal death has filled me with great pain and it made me think of a lot of people still suffering and dying in that tormented country of my beloved Syria, already too long in the throes of a bloody conflict, which continues to reap death and destruction.”

For all its woes Syria is just one country of the troubled Middle East where Muslims and Christians have lived through periods of peace and persecution for 14 centuries. Up until recently Christians made up 8 percent of the Syrian population, mostly Orthodox but 2 percent Catholic. It is questionable if these numbers still hold given the widespread persecution. Catholics are members of the Armenian, Chaldean, Greek Melkite, Latin, Maronite and Syrian rites.

“Syria, plunged into violence and suffering, continues to be fertile ground for vocations,” Archbishop Nassar wrote. “Numerous youth are responding to the call of the Lord, despite dispersion, exodus, great suffering and difficult prospects.”

Archbishop Nassar’s Maronites number (at least until recently) about 52,000 in Syria and more than one million in Lebanon. They consider themselves non-Arab in ethnicity and descended from the ancient Phoenicians. An estimated 3.2 million Maronites live through the world.

Because of persecution or just to seek a better life there are more Maronites scattered through South America than in the Middle East. In the U.S. there are an estimated 215,000 Maronites.

A particular challenge for immigrants is finding a church where the Maronite liturgy is celebrated, and for this reason many are absorbed into the Roman rite. The Philadelphia area has two Maronite Catholic parishes – St. Maron in South Philadelphia and St. Sharbel in Newtown Square, both part of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn.

Meanwhile the local Maronites continue to pray for all of the suffering people of the Middle East, according to Father Vincent Farhat, pastor of St. Maron, Philadelphia. “It’s not just a religious issue, it is a humanitarian issue,” he said.