Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt, who was renown for his insistence on staying in Syria's besieged city of Homs, has been shot dead there by an unknown gunman.
His death was reported on Monday by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria's state news agency SANA, and was confirmed by the Dutch Jesuit Order.
Van der Lugt, 75, had become a well-known figure in the Old City of Homs, respected by many for his solidarity with residents of the rebel-held area under a government siege for nearly two years.
He refused to leave despite constant shelling and dwindling supplies, insisting that Syria was his home and he wanted to be with the country's citizens in their time of need.
The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties.
"I can confirm that he's been killed," Jan Stuyt, secretary of the Dutch Jesuit Order, told the AFP news agency by phone.
"A man came into his house, took him outside and shot him twice in the head. In the street in front of his house."
Stuyt said he was not aware of particular threats to van der Lugt, adding that the priest would be buried in Syria "according to his wishes".
Van der Lugt spent nearly five decades in Syria, and said in February that he considered the country to be his home.
"The Syrian people have given me so much, so much kindness, inspiration and everything they have. If the Syrian people are suffering now, I want to share their pain and their difficulties," he said.
He stayed on even as some 1,400 people were evacuated during a UN-supervised operation that began on February 7 and also saw limited supplies of food brought into the city.
Homs's Old City has been besieged by government forces for nearly two years, creating increasing dire circumstances for those unable to leave.
"The faces of people you see in the street are weak and yellow. Their bodies are weakened and have lost their strength," Van der Lugt said before the UN operation.
The Vatican on Monday voiced outrage over the killing of Van der Lugt.
"This is the death of a man of peace, who showed great courage in remaining loyal to the Syrian people despite an extremely risky and difficult situation," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
|Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt spoke to Al Jazeera in February
Syria's opposition National Council condemned "in the strongest terms" the murder of the priest.
"It is with great shock and sorrow that we learned of the assassination of Father Frans van der Lugt in Homs today," National Council president Ahmad Jarba's office said in a statement.
"We condemn in the strongest terms this senseless criminal act and mourn his untimely death," it added.
"We strongly support the united quest of all Syrian opposition groups to find the criminals who perpetrated this cowardly act and to hold them accountable."
Jarba's spokesman Monzer Akbik said the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was "ultimately responsible for this crime, as the only beneficiary of Father Frans's death."
The siege and continued shelling in the city whittled away the Old City's population, including a Christian community that shrunk from tens of thousands to just 66, according to the Dutch priest.
A Jesuit, Father Frans arrived in Syria in 1966 after spending two years in Lebanon studying Arabic.