Kidnapped Indian priest: Jesus was with me every day
World Watch Monitor

World Watch Monitor

The Indian missionary priest released this week after 18 months in captivity in Yemen has said he felt Jesus was close to him every day during his ordeal.

Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a priest in the Salesian order, met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday, the day after his release.

The priest had been taken captive by suspected Islamist gunmen during a raid on a home for elderly and disabled in the Yemeni capital Aden, during which four Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were killed.

Oman’s state-run news agency ONA reported that Fr Uzhunnalil had been “rescued” on 12 September by the Omani authorities “in coordination with the Yemeni parties”. His release was announced after he had been flown to Muscat in a military aircraft.

The Pope was visibly moved as Fr Uzhunnalil knelt to kiss his feet, according to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper. Francis helped him up, kissed his hands, embraced him and blessed him.

Francis said he would continue to pray for him as he had done during his imprisonment.

Fr Uzhunnalil thanked him, adding that he prayed for him every day and offered his suffering for Francis’ mission and the good of the Church.

Describing his time in captivity, the priest, who was looking gaunt, told the pope that although he had been unable to celebrate Mass, “every day, I would repeat to myself, in my heart, all the words of the celebration”.

He added that he remembered in his prayers the 16 people who had died during the raid in which he was kidnapped.

Videos released during Fr Uzhunnalil’s captivity showed him unshaven, but in his meeting with the pope he had shaved and was wearing clerical garb.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, who attended the priest’s meeting with Pope Francis, told L’Osservatore Romano that after his release Fr Uzhunnalil had said: “Truly, every day I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone.”

The Major Rector of the Salesian order, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, said Fr Uzhunnalil flew from the Omani capital, Muscat, directly to Rome, where he will spend a few days to rest and receive medical treatment.

Fr Artime said that while the order had not been aware that discussions were under way with the priest’s kidnappers, “the Salesian Congregation was not asked for any ransom payment” and was unaware of any payment that may have been made to ensure Fr Uzhunnalil’s release, the US-based Catholic News Agency reported.

News of the priest’s release on Tuesday was greeted with relief and joy by India’s Church and government.

The Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, announced the news in a tweet saying: “I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued.”

The Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement thanking the Indian government for its efforts in securing the priest’s release, and expressing gratitude to “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.”

Fr Uzhunnalil’s cousin and former headmaster, VA Thomas, told World Watch Monitor from the family’s parish in Ramapuram in the southern state of Kerala: “We are thrilled. There are no words to describe our joy.”

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

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

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

Originally from 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.

Shortly after the raid, a 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.”

Two months later, in July, 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 governor of Kerala, along with Oommen Chandy, Kerala’s former chief minister, 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 Fr Tom’s family in Palai, to assure them that the government was making serious efforts “to bring the back the priest home safely”.

 

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Image courtesy L’Osservatore Romano