On meeting Mazar in Homs

Homs Christians with Fr FransIn August I wrote these words in a previous post about some of my heroes:

Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch priest, a Jesuit, who lived nearly fifty years in Syria, serving Christians and Muslims alike. He first came to my attention when I heard about him in May, 2013. The Christian community of Homs, Syria, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war began in 2011, had been decimated. Many had been killed and many, many more had fled. About 75 remained and Fr. van der Lugt stayed with them. None of them were Catholics, but that did not matter to Fr. Frans. He stayed with them through all the days that Homs was under siege: through bombardment, through lack of utilities, through the hunger that ensued. I saw a video of him pleading to the world in Arabic to remember that they were still there. He was a shepherd, caring for his flock, and they knew his voice.

He stayed with them until he was abruptly called home to Jesus on April 7, 2014. He was killed by extremists, the same kind that took James Foley’s life in the middle of the desert this week. It was not the same group, not the same manner, but it was the same hatred, the same lack of humanity. And I know the grief of God above was the same, too.

I first heard about Father Frans from my friend Salam Hanna, a Presbyterian pastor who had served among the clergy of Homs, Syria, and knew Father Frans. Salam shared a Power Point presentation with a group of us who had come to Lebanon in May, 2013, for an update on what they church was doing in response to the crisis in Syria next door. He showed us pictures of the churches in Homs before the trouble began and he showed us pictures of the damages after war came there in March, 2011. He explained that there had been a community of 60,000 Christians before the war, but now there were just a few left.

I found that presentation on my computer when I returned home from Lebanon and Syria just this past week because of an extraordinary encounter I had in Homs.

I met Mazar.

DSCN1579Mazar was one of the few remaining Christians who were shepherded by Father Frans through those three long years of siege. (He is in the picture at the top of this post, back row, sixth from the left.) The old city quarter of Homs was where the insurgent extremists battled the Syrian army for control. Siege tactics to force the extremists out led to terrible conditions for those few civilians trapped between the two forces. Father Frans did what he could for anyone who needed help: he offered prayer and comfort and even the little food he could manage to obtain. He plead their cause on YouTube videos which he managed to get out. Comforter. Provider. Advocate.

I had never forgotten this story from the first I heard it and when April rolled around this year and I heard from Salam that Father Frans had been killed, shot in the head by the extremists, I wept for a man I had never met.

One week later the siege of Homs was lifted. Father Frans was buried in the courtyard of the Jesuit monastery in the old quarter of Homs.

IMG_1158It is a quiet place now in that churchyard, and it was my humble privilege to kneel by Father Frans’ resting place on Saturday, November 22, with a group I traveled there with from The Outreach Foundation, as well as other clergy and parishioners of the churches there who accompanied us on a tour of seven churches in Homs. I wrote about it in my post, Stations of the Cross.

This was the one place I desperately needed to come to and pay my respects to a man who gave his life for others in need. If ever there was a present day model of Jesus Christ, this was him. A Dutch Jesuit who poured out his life for the people of a land he came to call his own and whose blood poured out in the place where he served.

But Mazar…

Mazar was one of those who greeted us as we entered this place. Not smiling and happy at the visit of American Christians as others there were. Mazar had sorrow all over his face as we came to Father Frans’ grave. And then we were told the rest of the story of Father’s last day.

One week before the siege was lifted, extremists came to this church where Father had tended the flock for these past three years. Surely they knew the end of their time in Homs had come. And they had come for Father Frans. We were told that they pulled him out of his house and forced him to sit in a chair, guns pointed. Mazar came out of the house to protect him and to stop them, but they pushed him aside. In front of Mazar they took the life of this man of God, this man of peace, this shepherd, comforter, provider, advocate.

This is the picture that Mazar has in his mind’s eye from then to now and to his last day.

In the churchyard of the Jesuit monastery HomsSomeone snapped this photo of me reacting to this story. Mazar is in the lower left corner. His sweater is gray with a black stripe on his sleeve. I will never forget this moment, this story, this gentle man’s face as we heard the story. I am grateful that this trip brought me to this place, this holy ground, where one man was willing to try to stop the violence that was about to happen here.

And now that I know Mazar’s story and how it intertwines with Father Frans and the story of love poured out in Homs, Syria, it is my responsibility to share it with you.

And now that you know, will you pray for Mazar and the community of Christians who are returning to Homs to rebuild their churches and their lives and their country?

DSCN1601Don’t turn off the news when they are reporting about Syria. Turn it up. Turn your attention to it. Remember that there are people who live there and call it home. They worship in churches. They worship in mosques. They are neighbors and friends and countrymen. Father Frans loved them all.

I thank you and I know Mazar would, too.

 

Stations of the Cross

With one of the parishioners inside St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria.

With one of the parishioners inside St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria.

I grew up as a Roman Catholic. Baptism. Confession. Communion. Confirmation. These four sacraments I received in the church I was born into and I am so grateful for parents who showed me this way.

As a Roman Catholic, we made a pilgrimage of prayer each Good Friday at our church through the Stations of the Cross. We walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of tears, as part of our penance during Holy Week. In a remembrance of the actual events, we were walking in holy places, on holy ground.

The old city of Homs, Syria, from the rooftop of a bombed mosque.

The old city of Homs, Syria, from the rooftop of a bombed mosque.

I have made another pilgrimage of prayer as a Presbyterian. I have walked in a city where war has raged for over three years. I have walked in a city where a two-year siege was lifted only six months ago. I have seen damage and destruction and piles of rubble around every corner where our cars drove so we could make it to holy sites. Piles of rubble guarded by men with guns to protect the few people who have made the difficult journey home to see what is still standing.

I have walked in the old city of Homs, Syria.

I came here with six other American Presbyterians. People like me who go to church on Sunday to worship the Lord who saved us by his grace. We come from different places in the states, but we all belong to Presbyterian churches.

We walked these places today with Presbyterians from Lebanon and Syria, including the pastor of the Homs Presbyterian Church, also called the National Evangelical Church of Homs, a young gentle man whose name is Mofid Karajili.

I first met Mofid in January in Lebanon at a consultation for the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and global partners supporting the relief effort of NESSL due to the war in Syria. He had made his way to be with us and share what was happening in his congregation. The church building had been destroyed during this siege, but the congregation – the gathered and sent Presbyterians of Homs – continued to meet in a home for the elderly in what he described as a safer part of Homs. Safer meant that insurgents and terrorists had not rooted themselves in the buildings in that part of this expansive region of Homs. But that did not mean that they did not hear the mortars and the guns. It also did not mean that people weren’t killed when shells exploded, because they were. It just meant they were not the frontline of this war. Mofid still commuted back to Beirut once or twice a month to continue his pursuit of a more advanced theological degree at the seminary there. His wife and children lived in Damascus (another safer place) while he continued to lead his flock in Homs. Faithful. Steadfast. Loving. Courageous. That is Mofid.

But now in Homs, Mofid was our host as we made this pilgrimage. Surrounded by security guards and other Christians, many from Mofid’s church but also Catholic and Orthodox, we went from place to place to visit seven Christian churches in this very ancient city, all of which had suffered severe damage during this war and siege.

I didn’t expect to find much hope here.

But what I found overwhelmed my heart with the truth of my faith: resurrection always follows crucifixion.

The churches here have been battered and bombed from within and without. It should have marked an end. But it really marked a beginning. A resurrection. And I was a witness.

We were met today by the priest of each of these churches in the old city of Homs. We stood in their sanctuaries and heard their stories. We saw the holes in their roofs. We saw the metal frames where stained glass once refracted sunlight into rainbows of colors. We saw icons and sculptures whose faces had been mutilated. We saw doors now filled with cinderblock as the heavy wooden or iron ones needed to replace them are not available.

We prayed together in different languages, but to the same God with the same fervency.

We walked the stations of the cross, two stations for each church.

Jesus is condemned to death. Jesus carries his cross.

St. Maroun Maronite Catholic Church: The bells were being rung by a man at St. Maroun. He was pulling hard on the rope and his feet would actually leave the ground as he repeated the pulling over and over. I have never heard bells sound out so joyfully before!

Jesus falls the first time. Jesus meets his mother.

Msgr. Kassab, bishop of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Homs, Syria.

Msgr. Kassab, bishop of the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Homs, Syria.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian Catholic Bishopric, we had to hurry our visit as the priests there were preparing for a funeral. But we took time to pray the Lord’s Prayer there as a community of believers. Later, as we headed to the next church, we heard them before we saw them as they sang their mournful chants accompanying a procession from the church. Monsignor Kassab, dressed in the red colors of a bishop, smiled and greeted us at this church, explaining that they had been able to remove the remains of other bishops from this place before it was damaged.

Simone of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

Fr. Ibrahim presents us with the gift of an icon at Notre Dame of the Belt, the Syrian Catholic Church in the old city of Homs, Syria.

Fr. Ibrahim presents us with the gift of an icon at Notre Dame of the Belt, the Syrian Catholic Church in the old city of Homs, Syria.

In the Syrian Orthodox church we heard the story of why they are called Notre Dame of the Belt. It seems the relic in this church is from the belt that the mother of Jesus wore around her waist. This relic touches the past in a very physical way. A very special gift at this church was hearing the priests sing the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac, as close to the Aramaic language of Jesus that still exists to this day. Fathers Anthony and Ibrahim led this beautiful sung prayer.

Jesus falls the second time. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.

Mutilated face of Jesus Christ on a mosaic at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, Homs, Syria.

Mutilated face of Jesus Christ on a mosaic at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the 40 Martyrs, Homs, Syria.

At the Greek Orthodox Church of the 40 Martyrs the Father Spyridon told us that bone relics of some of these early martyrs of this church are kept here. He also showed us the bronze bust in the courtyard of a former bishop, Athenosis, which had been welded back together after rebels had sliced it off. You can weld a head back onto a statue. You cannot weld the heads back on humans who have been slaughtered this way in this place.

Jesus falls the third time. Jesus is stripped of his garments.

At the Jesuit Monastery, I knelt at the tomb of Father Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest who had ministered to the 70 or so Christians who were stuck in this city for all those days and months of the siege. A Dutch priest who came here forty years ago,

The resting place of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, at the Jesuit Monastery in the old city of Homs, Syria.

The resting place of Fr. Frans vander Lugt, at the Jesuit Monastery in the old city of Homs, Syria.

I heard his cries to remember these people on Youtube videos. He was shot in the head by rebels one week before the siege was lifted. We met Mazar, one of these faithful who tried to stop the murder but was pushed back. I embraced him on our way out and thanked him as best I could as we both cried tears of loss: me for a man I never met and Mazar for a man who had been his priest, his confessor, his comforter, his rock during this time.

Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jesus dies on the cross.

The crater left to the basement of Our Lady of Peace Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria. This is where the pulpit used to be.

The crater left to the basement of Our Lady of Peace Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, Syria. This is where the pulpit used to be.

At Our Lady of Peace, the Melkite Catholic Church, we heard the story of how it survived the bombs and mortars. It survived until three days later when a bomb wired to the pulpit from which the priest proclaimed the Gospel each week exploded and blew out all the doors, the stained glass, the iron framework of the huge dome overhead and created a crater to the basement. Father Abdullah calmly explained all of this as we looked through the metal frames which once contained the colored glass that bathed this space in a spectrum of light.

Jesus is taken down from the cross. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Cross-shaped hole in the roof of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, Syria.

Cross-shaped hole in the roof of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, Syria.

At the Evangelical Church of Homs, the entire youth group sang a hymn of praise for us in the sanctuary, below a cross-shaped hole blown into the roof, standing in puddles of water and mud on the floor. Two mosques on either side of this church were also blown apart. This war was a war on the entire city.

Sacred places.

Sacred spaces.

Sacred faces.

A pilgrimage of prayer on holy ground.

Christ is laid in the tomb. And yet…

…resurrection always comes after crucifixion and we were seeing it before our eyes. That is the fifteenth station of the cross. Praise God.