Vigil raises thousands for victims of conflict in Syria

Almost £3,500 was raised at a Vigil for Syria at Farm Street Jesuit Church last Tuesday. The money will support Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) projects in the Middle East. The congregation of more than 250 was able to visit the Syria Shrine that had been set up in the Seven Dolours Altar, where photos of Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ – missing in Syria since July 2013 – and Fr Frans van der Lugt SJ – murdered on 7 April 2014 – were displayed.

“The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to be dire … and those caught up in the conflict very much need our prayers and support,” said Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, who presided at the Vigil. “Violence and poverty have become just a part of everyday life for ordinary Syrians.”

The gathering was then addressed by Louise Zanré from the Jesuit Refugee Service who described the current situation affecting Syrian refugees and Patricia Hatton, representing ACN. A procession through the church then culminated with the pictures of Fr van der Lugt and Fr Dall'Oglio being placed on the High Altar. Music was provided by the London Oratory School Schola (right)London Oratory School Schola

Lord Alton paid tribute to Fr Frans van der Lugt SJ, the Dutch Jesuit who had been murdered in Homs the previous day, whom, he said, “personified all the best qualities and ideals, which the Society of Jesus stands for”. Recalling that the service was taking place a few hundred yards from Tyburn, the site of the martyrdom of more than 100 Catholics at the time of the Reformation, he continued: “He (van der Lugt) joins a long list of Jesuit martyrs … who have sacrificed their lives truly believing that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. Fr Frans’ death in Syria is a stark reminder of the systematic campaign (of) the contemporary passion and suffering being inflicted on the Middle East’s Christians.”

Fr van der Lugt had worked in Syria since 1967 and had been looking after 89 Christians trapped in an old monastery in the Old City of Homs. In February the number fell to about two dozen, after a three-day truce between warring sides allowed people to leave the Old City. Lord Alton quoted a fellow Jesuit, Fr Ziad Hillal SJ, who reported that his confrere had remained to take care of those who could not leave: “For me, [Fr van der Lugt] represents Christ in the world … who always gives us hope. … He was a ray of joy and hope to all those trapped in the Old City of Homs, waiting for yet another UN permission to evacuate. God have mercy on us, who could not save him from sniper fire.”

Apathy and indifference

In his talk at Farm Street Church, Lord Alton reflected on the work of Aid to The Church In Need, which had provided more than £2 million of support to the humanitarian work in Homs. But he also criticised parliamentarians, the electorate and the western Churches for not doing more to address the conflict in the Middle East and, specifically, the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Lord David Alton at Farm Street Church“Hundreds of parliamentary hours can be spent asserting the rights of foxes or on discussing rights associated with our life-styles,” he said, “but when it comes to the killing of children and students, or the torching of their homes and places of worship, or the destruction of centuries old culture, our political classes have taken Trappist vows. This stems from a misplaced belief that their silence about radical Islamist groups represents ‘tolerance’. In reality it stems from fear and indifference.

“Ultimately, parliamentarians are only as good as the people who elect them – so their electorates are also partly to blame for not organising themselves in the way in which pressure groups do. If political leaders have been indifferent, where here are the western churches? Secular society has got its priorities wrong but so have western churches which too easily become intoxicated with their own introspective navel-gazing.”

Towards the end of his address, Lord Alton recalled the witness of another Jesuit, Edmund Campion SJ, who was martyred at nearby Tyburn and who famously prayed for forgiveness for those who were sending him to his death. “Our faith teaches us to forgive but until we meet in heaven we are not commanded to forget,” said Lord Alton.” The moment a nation slips into collective amnesia it risks repeating the old mistakes. Never again happens all over again … In our own times we must better comprehend the price which is paid for belief and allow the courage and heroism of those who suffer so greatly to shake us out of our apathy and our indifference. Fr Frans van der Lugt gave his life that others might live; what are we prepared to give on their behalf?”

Main photo: Fr Dominic Robinson SJ processes through Farm Street Church with the photo of Fr Paolo dall'Oglio SJ, watched by Patricia Hatton, Lord Alton and John Pontifex. Credit: Weenson Oo/picture-u.net