South Asia

Priest released after kidnap by Yemeni militants

Father Tom Uzhunnalil few months after his abduction

After being held captive for more than a year, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian Priest, who was kidnapped by militants in Yemen, has been released. The news was announced by Mrs Sushma Swaraj, India’s External Affairs Minister on her Twitter feed on 12 September 2017.

Father Tom Uzhunnalil hails from Kottayam in Kerala and was kidnapped by Yemini militants on 4 March 2016 from a Missionaries of Charity rest home for the sick and elderly in Aden, Yemen. The attack by the four militants who burst into the rest home, posing as relatives of one of the residents, left 16 people dead, including four Catholic nuns, one of them Indian.

 Since his abduction, there were numerous rumours and reports that caused the world to take notice of the condition of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil and mobilized prayers for him. One such rumour also claimed in May 2016, that Fr. Tom had been crucified on Good Friday by ISIS militants. The rumours were later discredited.

In December 2016, a day after Christmas, a video of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil was released by his captors in which he appealed to the Pope to do more to save him. The Pope had made an appeal to his captors to release him in April earlier that year.

Another video of him released in May 2017, also had him asking for help in getting released. The video also showed a cardboard in the lap of an emaciated Fr Tom, with the date 15 April 2017.

On 24 August 2017, a delegation from the Salesian Province of Bangalore and the Provincial met Mrs Sushma Swaraj in Delhi, who had assured them of the swift release of Fr Tom. She told the delegation that he was definitely alive and safe and that the Government hoped that he could be released soon.

On 12 September 2017, the Minister tweeted, “I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued.” A few hours later, she gave an update on his release informing that Fr Tom had reached the Vatican .
Father Tom before his abduction

The Vatican released a statement which said, “This morning, the Rev Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, SDB, was freed after being kidnapped on March 4, 2016 in Yemen. The Holy See fervently thanks all those who worked for his release, and especially His Majesty the Sultan of Oman and the competent authorities of the Sultanate.”

According to the Vatican, “Fr. Uzhunnalil will remain for a few days in a Salesian community in Rome before going home to India.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India in a statement released to the media said, “The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expresses its immense joy on getting the news of the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil SDB who has been in Captivity since March 2016. As we thank God for this unique grace bestowed on Fr. Tom and his family and the Salesian Congregation (The Society of Don Bosco) and the Catholic Church in India, we pray for his continued good health and complete recovery to resume active Salesian ministry for God and His people in his Congregation and the Church.”

The CBCI also expressed its gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mrs. Sushma Swaraj for “persistently and perseveringly working to obtain the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil.”

Intervention by the Oman Government helped secure the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil. A statement released by the Oman News Agency said, “In response to the Royal Orders of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said and as per a request from the Vatican to assist in the rescuing of a Vatican employee, the concerned authorities in the Sultanate, in coordination with the Yemeni authorities, have managed to find him.”

Later another version of the statement was released online which omitted the words “as per the request of the Vatican” and referred to Fr Tom as a “Vatican priest” and not a “Vatican employee”.

The Government of Oman claimed that Fr. Tom’s release had been secured with “Omani help” and said that “Tom Uzhunnalil, a Vatican priest expressed thanks to God Almighty and appreciation to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. He also thanked his brothers and sisters and all relatives and friends who called on God for safety and release.”

Meanwhile Mrs Sushma Swaraj on 13 September 2017 at around 4 pm IST announced from her Twitter account that Fr. Tom was indeed in Vatican and had spoken to her. She wrote in a three-part tweet, “Fr Tom has spoken to me from Vatican. He profusely thanked the Government of India especially the Prime Minister for efforts to rescue him. He also conveyed his thanks to the Governments and people who helped in his rescue mission. He has also conveyed his thanks to the people of India for their concern and prayers for his release.”

“India thanks Oman. India thanks Yemen,” she added.