KOCHI, India — The chorus of pleas for the release of Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped by ISIS in Yemen last March, has reached a crescendo in his native southern Indian state of Kerala, following the disclosure of his emotional video appeal for release.
“We are holding special prayers on New Year Sunday in all the churches for Father Tom’s release,” Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the vibrant Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, told the Register on Dec. 29.
Cardinal Alencherry shared this information after meeting half a dozen anguished relatives of Father Uzhunnalil, who had rushed nearly 40 miles from Ramapuram, their native parish, to submit a memorandum to Cardinal Alencherry when he was leading an ordination service at Mukkoottuthara, 90 miles east of Kochi.
“The video is very disturbing. We are seriously concerned about the health and safety of Father Tom,” V.A. Thomas, the priest’s eldest first cousin and leader of the delegation of relatives, told the Register.
Father Uzhunnalil was abducted on March 4 at the Missionaries of Charity (MC) home for the aged in Aden, where four MC nuns were murdered, along with 12 others, in an attack by members of the Islamic State group (ISIS).
The five-minute video appeal of the kidnapped Salesian that surfaced in the Christian heartland of Kerala on Dec. 26 has gone viral via social media. Father Uzhunnalil is seen (possibly forced) reading aloud with gasping breath, making an emotional appeal for his release to the Indian government and the Church.
In the video, the kidnapped priest blamed both the Indian government and the Church for their failure to secure his release. He claimed his captors have made many contacts with the government of India — including its president and prime minister — and yet “I am very sad that nothing has been done seriously in my regard.”
“If I were a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously. I am from India. I am perhaps not considered as of much value. … Dear Pope Francis, dear Holy Father, as a father, please take care of my life. I am very much depressed. My health is deteriorating,” he said in the video.
“I have no doubt that Father Tom is being forced to say those things, including blaming the Church of inaction. We are worried about his health condition,” said Thomas, who was headmaster to the 56-year-old priest during his student days at Ramapuram.
“It is a sad reality that, despite the concerted efforts and pleas from the Church, there has not been much political pressure [from the government] to ensure his release,” said the relatives in their memorandum urging the Syro-Malabar Church, from which the kidnapped priest hails, to exert greater effort at all levels for his release.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, India’s federal minister for minority affairs, called on Cardinal Alencherry in his office on Dec. 27 and assured him that the government was “doing everything possible” during his visit to the Church headquarters in Kochi.
However, Rajnath Singh, the federal interior minister, during a visit to a popular Hindu temple at Guruvayoor on Dec. 28, caused an embarrassment to the government by reinforcing questions about whether the government was doing enough to secure the release of the priest.
“Who is Uzhunnalil?” retorted Singh when media personnel covering his visit probed him on government efforts to get the Kerala priest released. Subsequently, media and senior officers had to explain to the interior minister who the priest was.
Meanwhile, following Father Uzhunnalil’s emotional appeal, news reports have appeared in some media suggesting the priest was to blame for the kidnapping.
“Fr Tom went against official advisory,” read the headline of a major news report in the Times of India, published on Dec. 27.
However, his cousins pointed out that the report never mentioned that Father Uzhunnalil had been working in Yemen for more than 14 years.
The relatives of the kidnapped priest also said that they were “saddened” by reports in a section of Christian media raising doubts about the identity of the priest in the video.
“The gap between his teeth, a damaged finger from childhood and his voice — all these leave no doubt about his identity. We morphed his [beardless] photo with the beard seen in the video, and the picture matches,” noted Thomas Uzhunnalil, a cousin of the kidnapped priest.
“It is painful for us that such reports have appeared, when attention should have been on the desperate appeal for saving his life,” he added.
The Salesian order and the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia also have both indicated they regard the video to be authentic, although the vicariate, which represents the Catholic Church in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, noted that “the source of the video, the date of its creation and the circumstances under which it was recorded are unknown.”
While the Indian government has cited lack of a stable government in Yemen for the delay in his release, Archbishop Susai Pakiam, president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, in a statement on Dec. 27, requested the “release of the kidnapped priest without further delay.”
“Notwithstanding technicalities involved, the delay is seen by the common people as a lapse on the part of those concerned,” said Archbishop Pakiam, who heads the Archdiocese of Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital.
Meanwhile, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, who was in Trivandrum to inaugurate the Indian History Congress, on Dec. 29 gave assurances that the government will make every effort to get the priest released from captivity.
And endorsing the Christian concern over the fate of the priest, the Kottayam district chapter of the ruling communists in that area of Kerala announced that party members will send 50,000 letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding the release of Father Uzhunnalil.
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.
He filed this report from Kochi.