A PRIEST of the Roman Catholic Salesians of Don Bosco, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen in March last year, during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity house in which four nuns were killed (News, 11 March 2016), has been released.
His release after a year in captivity was announced by India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, on Tuesday of last week. She posted on Twitter: “I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued.” The next day, she posted that Fr Uzhunnalil had arrived at the Vatican.
Pope Francis, who had appealed for his release, has expressed his gratitude for the outcome. “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,” a Vatican statement read. “Fr Uzhunnalil will remain for a few days in a Salesian community in Rome before going home to India.”
Fr Uzhunnalil was kidnapped during the massacre at a care home for the elderly in the southern port city of Aden, in which four Missionaries of Charity, with 12 other people, were shot dead. Two gunmen stood guard outside while four others went inside the Mother Teresa Home, handcuffing their victims before shooting them in the head. The superior, Sister Mary Sally, survived by hiding from the gunmen. She was evacuated from Yemen shortly afterwards.
Speaking last month after a meeting with the Provincial and a delegation from the Salesian Province of Bangalore, Ms Swaraj said that securing Fr Uzhunnalil’s release was the “highest priority” of the Indian government. “All efforts are made with utmost urgency by the government of India, and help is sought from governments, organisations, and people who could assist in this process,” she told reporters. “Fr Tom is alive and safe for sure, and it is the strong hope of the government that he could be released soon.”
Fr Uzhunnalil had appealed for his release in two YouTube videos during his captivity. The first was released on Boxing Day last year, and resulted in a letter from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India calling for his release (News, 20 January 2016). In the second, he said that he was suffering from poor health, and pleaded with Pope Francis to “take care” of his life (News, 19 May).
This week, however, Fr Uzhunnalil said that while he had lost weight during his ordeal, and been moved several times, he had not suffered any physical harm from his captors, whom he was unable to identify.
“I thank God Almighty for this day,” he told reporters at the Salesian headquarters in Rome. He saved me healthy enough. Clear mind. Emotions under control until now. God has been extremely kind to me. No gun was pointed at me.”
Recalling his release, he said: “Those who kept me came to where I slept [and said]: ‘I bring you good news. We are sending you home. If you need to go to the bathroom, go. Take a shower, but quickly.’”
The head of the Salesian order, Don A. F. Artime, said that he had no knowledge that any ransom had been paid in exchange for Fr Uzhunnalil’s release. “No one ever told us that they asked for money,” he said. “No one asked us for even a euro. We don’t know anything about this. This is the whole truth. And I believe that Fr Tom knows even less.”
The Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, Sister Mary Prema Pierick, said that she was “overwhelmed” by news of his release. “We never abandoned the hope that one day Fr Tom would be released. His photograph is attached to Mother Teresa’s tomb. The Sisters, the poor, and the people, prayed every day for his liberation. We give glory to God, and thank all those who prayed and worked untiringly for the release of Fr Tom.”
Most Christians have now fled Yemen, in the midst of civil war and political turmoil, but reports suggest that some Salesian priests, and about 20 Missionaries of Charity, have remained to continue their ministry.