World Watch Monitor

India’s church, government and politicians from across the political landscape have all expressed relief and joy over the release of Salesian Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped in Yemen in March, 2016.

Statements hailing the release of the Indian priest have poured in – from India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, to the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis.

Fr Tom

Fr Tom Uzhunnalil 

“I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued,” tweeted Mr Swaraj, breaking the news to the nation.

Apart from thanking the Indian government for its efforts in securing the priest’s release, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in its statement thanked “Pope Francis, who took personal interest in Fr Tom’s release efforts, and Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, the Bishop in charge of the Middle East, and the Sultan of Oman, for their untiring efforts”.

In fact, the news of Fr Uzhunnalil’s release was made public after the priest had been flown to Muscat in a military aircraft.

A statement quoting the state-run Oman News Agency, published in the Oman Observer, said Fr Uzhunnalil “expressed thanks to God Almighty” following his release. “In compliance with the His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman, in coordination with the Yemeni parties, have managed find a Vatican priest,” said the state-run news agency’s statement. “He has been transferred to Muscat, from where he will return to his home in Kerala. 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 [his] safety and release.”

Father Joyce Francis from Bangalore, part of the Salesian order to which Fr Uzhunnalil belongs, also confirmed the news to World Watch Monitor. “We are thrilled. There are no words to describe our joy,” Fr Uzhunnalil’s cousin, V A Thomas, told World Watch Monitor from the family’s native Ramapuram parish.

“People are excited and distributing sweets,” added Mr Thomas, who had been headmaster to Fr Uzhunnalil when he was a student in the local Catholic school in the 1970s.

“I got the news from a contact in Muscat,” Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro Malabar Church to which Fr Uzhunnalil belongs, told World Watch Monitor, after leading a thanksgiving prayer at the St Mary’s Basilica in Kochi.

“Father Tom is now being taken to the Vatican,” Cardinal Alencherry confirmed to World Watch Monitor, contrary to earlier news reports that he was being flown to Kerala.

Cardinal Alencherry had earlier called for special prayers and candlelit vigils after a video was released of the visibly ailing priest in captivity.

Fr Uzhunnalil, 58, was abducted from the Missionaries of Charity home for the elderly in Aden on 4th March, 2016. During the raid, unidentified gunmen killed four Indian nuns, two Yemeni female staff members, eight elderly residents and a guard.

Originally from the Indian state of Kerala, Fr Uzhunnalil had worked in Yemen for 14 years, moving to the care home in 2015 after Aden’s Holy Family Church, where he served, was set on fire.

In March 2016, a false rumour circulated that the Islamic State group had crucified Fr Uzhunnalil on Good Friday. But then at Christmas, 2016, a video of him in captivity surfaced, with the visibly unkempt and ailing priest – who is diabetic and has high blood pressure – urging the government of India and the church to ensure his release.

That led to a series of assurances from the Indian government, while the Catholic Church organised several demonstrations, including a day of prayer and candlelit vigils, urging the government to ensure the kidnapped priest’s safe release.

A second video appeal by the priest surfaced on the internet in May, 2017, with the priest stating that serious efforts had not been made by the church or the government to ensure his release.

Fr Uzhunnalil, speaking slowly in English, said: “They are treating me well to the extent they are able. My health condition is deteriorating quickly and I require hospitalisation as early as possible.”

In July, 2017, Yemen confirmed to India’s foreign minister that Fr Uzhunnalil was still “alive”.

After the second video emerged, his cousin, VA Thomas, said his family had been “consistently pleading with everyone to ensure Fr Tom’s release” and had called on several top government leaders.

Thomas added that he had led a four-member Uzhunnalil delegation to meet P Sathasivam, the Kerala Governor, along with Oommen Chandy, former chief minister of Kerala, on 31 May.

Three days earlier, the federal government had dispatched Richard Hay, a Christian Member of the Indian Parliament (who had been nominated by the ruling BJP government), to the family in Palai, to assure them that the government was making serious efforts “to bring the back the priest home safely”.