Gunman Slays Priest Who Remained in Besieged Syrian City

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A Dutch priest who advocated for regular Syrians and refused to leave his mission in the besieged city of Homs was gunned down by a masked assassin in a monastery on Monday.

Father Frans van der Lugt was shot to death inside the building in the city's Bustan al-Diwan neighborhood, a priest and rights group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Van der Lugt “died as a man of peace, who with great courage in an extremely dangerous and difficult situation, wanted to remain faithful to the Syrian people to whom he had dedicated so many years of his life and spiritual service," said the spokesman for the Holy See Father Federico Lombardi, according to Vatican Radio.

The motives for the attack were not known and no one immediately claimed responsibility for the killing although yhe state-run news agency SANA blamed "terrorists" for the priest's death but offered no details. The government uses the term for anti-Assad armed rebels.

During the three-year civil war, the 75-year-old repeatedly refused to leave the rebel stronghold, which has been blockaded by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad for the past year.

“I think it is important not to leave this area,” he said in a February interview with NBC News. “For me it is important to stay here and also with the others. I have no problem with staying here.”

Van der Lugt, who had lived in Syria since 1966, chose to live alongside both Christians and Muslims as Homs was engulfed by some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict.

He added that he was hopeful that negotiators would find a “good solution” to end the conflict.

Homs' rebels also include hard-line Sunni Muslim groups whose ideologies are intolerant of minorities but an activist said rebels were shocked by the priest's death.

"The man was living with us, eating with us, sleeping with us. He didn't leave, even when the blockade was eased," said Beibars Tilawi told The Associated Press.

Regardless of the rebels' views toward Christians, the priest was well-liked for his efforts to get the blockade lifted and alleviate widespread suffering and hunger among civilians, he added.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-Lawahez Jabari and Henry Austin