VATICAN CITY — After more than 18 months of uncertainty regarding the fate of Salesian Missionary Father Thomas Uzhunnalil following his abduction by militants in Yemen, the priest has finally been set free and has returned to India.
The news was officially announced Sept. 12 by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in a tweet that read: “I am happy to inform that Fr Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued.”
Father Uzhunnalil first garnered the world's attention when he was kidnapped March 4, 2016, during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen, that left 16 people dead, including four sisters.
His international profile grew when rumors spread that he was to be crucified on Good Friday, which were later discredited. Since then, numerous photos and videos have been released picturing Father Uzhunnalil, thin and with an overgrown beard, pleading for help and for his release.
The Salesian Information Agency, which has been keeping tabs on the status of their priest’s case, also reported the news of his release.
According to the state-run Oman News Agency, Father Uzhunnalil's release was secured by Oman, and he has already arrived in the Omani capital of Muscat. The priest is expected to return to his home in Kerala, India shortly.
In a statement from Oman News Agency, which was published in the Oman Observer newspaper, Father Uzhunnalil had “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,” the statement read.
It relayed that Father Uzhunnalil “has been transferred to Muscat from where he will return to his home in Kerala.”
In addition to offering thanks to God, the priest also voiced gratitude to Sultan Qabbos as well as “his brothers and sisters and all relatives and friends who called on God for safety and release.”
Pope Francis was among those who advocated on behalf of Father Uzhunnalil, calling for the priest’s release April 10, 2016, after his Sunday Regina Coeli address in St. Peter’s Square.
“I renew my appeal for the freeing of all kidnapped persons in armed conflict zones,” the Pope said. “In particular, I wish to remember Salesian priest Tom Uzhunnalil, who was abducted in Aden, Yemen last March 4.”
Since his kidnapping, tireless efforts had been made on the part of the government and the Indian bishops to secure his release, and numerous prayer vigils and novenas were organized by the Salesians in Bangalore, India, praying for his safety.
It is still unclear exactly which group is responsible for the priest’s abduction. Many reports claim that the Islamic State militant group was responsible, however, the rumors remain unconfirmed.
Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war since March 2015, when Shiite rebels attempted to oust Yemen’s Sunni-led government. Saudi Arabia has led a pro-government coalition. Both al-Qaida and the Islamic State have set up strongholds in the country amid the power vacuum. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
In a Sept. 12 statement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expressed "its immense joy" on the news of the priest's release.
"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 statement from Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the secretary-general of the bishops' conference, read. "As we express our profound gratitude to God, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India wants to place on record its immense gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Srimati Sushma Swaraj the Minister of External Affairs and the Government of India for persistently and perseveringly working to obtain the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil."
"Fr. Tom’s release gives immense joy to the Catholic Church in India and the Salesian Family and all the people of India and we place on record our gratitude to all for their immense faith in God and persevering prayers that God in his goodness and mercy has heard and answered. We thank all men and women of good will who stood with us with prayer and encouragement."