NEW DELHI — Hope and expectation are rising after Yemen confirmed that missionary Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen more than a year ago, is “alive.”
The heartening news was communicated to the Indian government July 12 by Abdulmalik Abduljalil Al-Mekhlafi, deputy prime minister of Yemen, when he called on Sushma Swaraj, external affairs (foreign) minister of India, in New Delhi.
During the meeting, the External Affairs Ministry said in a press statement that Swaraj asked the visiting Yemeni deputy prime minister “to secure the safe and early release” of Father Uzhunnalil.
“We are very happy to hear this news. This brings joy and hope to us,” Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the autonomous Syro-Malabar Church to which the kidnapped priest belongs, told the Register July 17.
Father Uzhunnalil was kidnapped on March 4, 2016, from a Missionaries of Charity home for the aged, where four Missionaries of Charity sisters were murdered, along with 12 others, in an attack by unidentified gunmen in the port city of Aden in Yemen.
“We are happy with the efforts the government is making for Father Tom’s release. We will continue to keep in contact with the government on this,” Cardinal Alencherry said.
After 14 years of service in war-torn Yemen, Father Uzhunnalil left Yemen and returned to Bangalore. But he went back months before his abduction because his replacement Salesian colleague did not obtain the necessary visa to serve with the Missionaries of Charity sisters who were running the home for the destitute.
A month after his kidnapping, the shocking rumor emerged of his “crucifixion” on Good Friday 2016, drawing greater worldwide attention to the abduction of the 56-year-old priest. The horrific rumor later turned out to be a hoax.
A video of the priest in captivity surfaced around Christmas, with the visibly shabby and ailing priest urging the government of India and the Church to ensure his release from captivity.
That led to a series of assurances from the government of India that it would take all possible measures to secure his release, while the Catholic Church organized a series of demonstrations, including a day of prayer in churches across the Christian heartland of Kerala.
After a delegation from the Uzhunnalil family called on Cardinal Alencherry, following the surfacing of the video, the cardinal called for candlelight vigils in churches and urged the government to ensure the kidnapped priest’s safety and release.
‘We Are Hopeful’
“We are hopeful. The news has generated a lot of enthusiasm among the people here,” Father George Njarakunnel, parish priest of Ramapuram — Father Uzhunnalil’s home parish — in the Diocese of Palai in Kerala, told the Register.
“The people were losing hope. But now, they are hopeful,” added the vicar of the parish known for its bounty of vocations, with nearly 1,000 nuns and priests from its 2,000 Catholic families.
(The Ramapuram parish lost one of its elderly missionaries July 10, when 81-year-old Father Alexander Charalamkunnel, who spent his lifetime in the troubled Kandhamal area in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, died of natural causes.)
“We are very hopeful now,” said V.A. Thomas, first cousin of the kidnapped priest, who has been leading the Uzhunnalil family’s efforts for securing the release of the Salesian priest with government officials and Church authorities.
A second video appeal of Father Uzhunnalil surfaced on the internet in May, with the priest stating that serious efforts have not been made by the Church or the government to ensure his release.
“In that video appeal, Father Tom had even requested us [family] to put pressure [on the government] to ensure his release,” acknowledged Thomas, who was headmaster of Father Uzhunnalil when he was a student in the local Catholic school in the 1970s.
The precise identity of Father Uzhunnalil’s kidnappers, and what they are demanding in return for his release, is not publicly known, although they have been identified in some news reports as being associated with the Islamic State terrorist group.
Yemen is currently embroiled in a savage and complex civil war between the government and a number of militant groups.
“It is difficult to guess the identity of kidnappers. Several groups are involved in the [civil] war,” Salesian Father George Muttathuparambil, who left Yemen March 30, 2016, told the Register in an interview at the Salesian provincial house in Bangalore in March this year.
The priest, who had spent six years in Yemen, said that when the war began in March 2015, there were four priests in Yemen looking after the four parishes in Sana’a, Aden, Taiz and Hodeidah, all ministering to expatriates. There are no native Christians in Yemen.
When the government of India evacuated nearly 5,000 Indians, he said, three of the four priests also left. Father Uzhunnalil volunteered to come to Yemen after they departed.
“But I chose to remain back to look after the four places and the [Missionaries of Charity] sisters,” said the priest, who stayed several times at the seniors’ home where the massacre took place and Father Uzhunnalil was kidnapped. “I used to stay in one place for nearly 10 days and then move on to the next place. Once the war began, it was not possible for me to go to Aden, as the war was raging there.”
“On Aug. 15  my church in Taiz was occupied by the militants, and they destroyed everything inside, carried away the things, [including] my own personal belongings, and burned the rest. Soon, I got the news that they were looking for me, and so I had to run away to another place,” recounted Father Muttathuparambil.
“I was lucky to leave in the nick of time,” said the priest, who fled Yemen days before the area was gripped by fighting between government and rebels groups.
Praying for Help
A four-member Uzhunnalil family delegation, led by Thomas, met P. Sathasivam, the governor of Kerala, along with Oommen Chandy, former chief minister of Kerala, on May 31 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital.
Three days earlier, the Indian federal government had dispatched Richard Hay, a Christian member of India’s Parliament, to the Uzhunnalil family in Ramapuram, assuring them that the government was making serious efforts “to bring the priest home safely.”
“We are doing all that we can,” said Thomas.
Father Uzhunnalil’s ancestral house currently is locked up, with his siblings living in different cities, including some abroad. But despite this scattering of many of the families from the Uzhunnalil clan, at least 30-40 families attend a regular local prayer gathering on his behalf.
As Thomas said, “Every month, we are meeting for prayer in one of our [Uzhunnalil] homes.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.