KERALA, India — Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, released from captivity for 18 months in Yemen by unidentified Islamic groups, was accorded a hero’s welcome as he landed Oct. 3 in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of southern Kerala state — and his homeland and the cradle of Christianity in India.
Soon after he landed in the state capital, Father Uzhunnalil met Gov. P. Sathasivam of Kerala, before he reached the office of Major Archbishop Cardinal Baselios mar Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, who embraced the Salesian priest in front of dozens of cameras.
“Father Tom held on to hope with his spirit of determination in front of death. He is an illuminating lamp in the darkness of suffering. ... He is a model to us,” acclaimed Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala’s communist chief minister, at a public reception in honor of the priest, hosted by the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church headed by Cardinal Cleemis.
Chief Minister Vijayan attended the reception for Father Uzhunnalil, who was released Sept. 12, along with a host of dignitaries, including former chief minister Ommen Chandy. A prominent Muslim cleric and a Hindu monk were also present, communicating the interreligious nature of the celebration.
“Father Tom’s extraordinary patience and his amazing capacity to face suffering with prayer — he could win over the hearts of the terrorists with humility,” said Chandy, former chief minister of Kerala and a Jacobite Christian.
Nearly 3,000 guests, including ministers in Kerala’s government, legislators, bishops and hundreds of priests and nuns, applauded several times as Hindu monk Swami Sandrananda and Husain Maulavi, chief Muslim cleric of Thiruvananthapuram, hailed the 59-year-old priest as a model of prayer and trust in God’s providence.
Earlier Oct. 1, more than a dozen senior political leaders of Kerala lined up to greet Father Uzhunnalil when he landed at the airport in the port city of Kerala, joining dozens of priests and Catholic leaders led by Bishop Jacob Muricken, auxiliary of Palai, the native diocese of the released priest.
When he entered St. Mary’s Basilica in the heart of Kochi, the enthusiastic faithful applauded. “Because of your prayers I am with you. … I was under captivity, and now I am addressing you. Let us thank God,” said Father Uzhunnalil, flanked by two bishops.
It was in the same basilica that Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Church, to which Father Uzhunnalil belongs, launched the countrywide prayer vigil for his safety and release in January.
The basilica’s vicar showed Father Uzhunnalil an album of the photos of the prayer vigil after Father Uzhunnalil finished his address from the altar.
Later, while addressing a crowded news conference at the major archbishop’s house, Father Uzhunnalil continued to cite the prayer of millions as the catalyst for his release: “I have been told by my relatives that even Hindus and Muslims conducted prayers for me.”
“Nobody had pointed a gun at me during my captivity. ... They never tortured me. They gave me food three times a day, even when they were fasting for Ramadan,” he recalled.
Later, the Salesian missionary reached Palai for another reception at the bishop’s house, with dozens of priests, nuns and others.
Another “homecoming” came at his native Ramapuram parish. Dozens of Catholics, who had their cars pasted with photos of Father Uzhunnalil, led him in a motorcade of 100-plus vehicles, including bikes, to Ramapuram.
By the time the cavalcade reached the front of the historic church, thousands had already arrived to see their hero.
“We are thrilled as we receive Father Tom back to our midst,” declared Father George Njarakunnel as he garlanded Father Uzhunnalil amid fireworks.
To chants of “Praise the Lord” and “Thank God,” Father Uzhunnalil was driven in an open, flower-bedecked vehicle up the pathway leading to the historic St. Augustine Church.
“We are very happy to be here. We came to see him, as we had been saying a Rosary for him, getting up at 5:30am to start the day,” Tomy Pulparambil, who traveled about 25 miles from Thodupuzha to meet Father Uzhunnalil, told the Register.
Pulparambil is the younger brother of Missionaries of Charity Sister Sally, who was the only other person who escaped the bullets of the home for the aged in Aden, Yemen, where Father Uzhunnalil was taken hostage March 4, 2016. Sixteen others at the center, including four nuns, were shot dead before the killers drove away with Father Uzhunnalil, whom they dumped in the trunk of their car.
“I have no words to express my joy,” said K.T. Thomas, the trustee of the Ramapuram parish and a retired bank manager, upon seeing the hometown priest’s return.
After praying at the tomb of Blessed Thevarparambil Kunjachan, a holy Catholic priest who died in 1973, at the church, Father Uzhunnalil led the thanksgiving Mass while hundreds stood praying in the open grounds. Among them were four sisters who were moved to tears.
Then glowing tributes were paid to Father Uzhunnalil’s faith and tenacity at the public meeting in the parish auditorium.
“Father Uzhunnalil was not alone in captivity. He turned his prison into an altar. He is a gospel of prayer for us,” hailed Bishop Muricken.
Addressing his relatives, neighbors, friends and other parishioners who thronged every inch of space in the auditorium, Father Uzhunnalil sobbed when he referred to the bloodshed he witnessed.
Then Father Uzhunnalil shared how his captivity ended. On Sept. 10, one of his captors told him: “Good news: We are going to send you back to Kerala.” And after hours of driving around, the priest, clad in a burqa (traditional Muslim women’s dress), was shifted to different vehicles. Finally, at noon Sept. 12, he was told: “Welcome to Oman.”
“Then I knew I was free,” Father Uzhunnalil recounted.
As the reception ended, Father Uzhunnalil urged everyone to stand up to pray for those who were killed in Yemen. As he pronounced the names of the nuns who were shot before him, Father Uzhunnalil grew emotional again, bringing the eyes of the 2,000 in the auditorium to tears.
Finally, the real homecoming came, when Father Uzhunnalil was taken to his ancestral house. There, he was welcomed by his kith and kin, including eldest brother Mathew and sister Mary. The great homecoming was aptly described by the Times of India as “Return of the Native.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.