April 12, 2014

On Changing Times

Jesuit priests at the St. Joseph church for the memorial service, a portrait of Van der Lugt in the background
I went to a memorial service this afternoon in Ashrafiya. It was for Father van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit priest who was executed last Monday in the city of Homs, Syria.  He was about to celebrate his 76th birthday this week, and had been in Syria for some 55 years, making him a young man of 21 when he entered the service of the Jesuits. Apparently he learned the Arabic language in Lebanon, and then moved to Syria, where he spent his life in service of the church and the people.
Gunmen took him out of his house, and executed him with two bullets to the head, right on the street in front of his house. Why is unclear, although stories of extremisms have been reaching the world for quite some time now.  He was not afraid, one of his fellow Jesuits said during the service. He was at peace, not afraid to die, and aware of the risks.

 I am from Roman Catholic stock, but in Holland that doesn’t mean much. Most people I know (me included) never ever go to church, except for weddings, funerals and that one Christmas mass on December the 24th . Our village priest would even make a joke of it on Christmas Eve. “I will tell you when to rise, and when to sit, as most of you come only once a year, and are out of sorts, so to speak.” Of the Dutch Christians, only 13% go to church regularly. My parents stopped going to church when I was 11, the prayer before and after meals somehow disappeared as well, and over the years, religion has become a non-issue in our household. It is a non-issue with the majority of the Dutch nowadays. 45% of the Dutch claim to have no religion at all.
And therefore to put yourself in the service of the church is a strange concept to my generation. In the old days, the days of my parents, large families would have at least one or two children that would enter the monastery. From both my mothers and father’s side, there are priests and nuns, but they are all over 75. The younger generation is not interested and it is rare to see young nuns in Holland.
Here in Lebanon, it is quite a different story. It is common to see young men and women in the religious frock. I find their sacrifice commendable, yet difficult to comprehend. Religion is so much more intertwined in people’s daily lives here, regardless of what their religion is.
 A packed church
Vader van der Lugt, as a young man of 21, so I guess it was straight out of high school, traveled to Lebanon in 1959,at a time when airplane travel was not that common. Maybe he came by boat. He entered the folds of the Jesuits here in Ashrafiya, learned Arabic, and was eventually dispatched to Syria, where he spent the rest of his life working for the church. The Jesuits in his region run a number of projects, and in general it is to the service of the poor. They run schools for the poor, head institutes for the deaf and the blind, or organize workshop and help for migrant workers. Father van der Lugt was working with mentally handicapped children.
The church was packed. And when I look at this congregation of Lebanese Christians, I sort of think that this may be the end of an era. All the priests ware grey-haired men. The nuns equally so.
You can say what you want about dictators, but they do tend to protect the minorities. The Christians of Iraq have pretty much left the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein.  The Copts of Egypt are under fire now that Moubarak is no longer in charge. The Christians in Syria are in a predicament, now with the
Daash and the likes running parts of the country. Of the some 70,000 Christians in Homs, estimates are that some 100 are left. The rest has run away.
And the Christians of Lebanon see all of this happening around them. They are a minority at this point in time. They still have 50% in parliament, but they have to forge alliances with radical Islamic parties in order to get some points across. And somehow, this must strike a note. Are they the next group in the Middle East to be forced out? I don’t know, but times are changing.
It is a pity, because diversity is what makes life interesting. And so I attended a memorial service in Ashrafia. Not because I am a religious person. But because I see that times are changing. And it is not a good change.  

1 comment:

Tanya Der said...

Very sad and very moving.