NEW DELHI — The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has deplored the widespread rumors of the crucifixion of kidnapped Salesian Father Thomas Uzhunnalil on Good Friday in Yemen, where the Indian priest is suspected to have been held in captivity since he was kidnapped by forces of the Islamic State group there in Aden on March 4.
“A lot of rumors are being spread in the social media that Father Tom was subjected to cruel torture and then crucified on Good Friday. This gruesome news is being widely circulated, both at home and abroad,” said the CBCI in a press statement on March 29.
The statement also acknowledged the role of the Vatican, which the CBCI said “is understood to have stepped up its efforts through diplomatic channels for the release of Father Tom, a missionary priest who offered his life for the service of the poor, the sick and the aged, in collaboration with the Missionary Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in Aden, Yemen.”
“This really upsets us and brings agony to the relatives and concern for all,” the Catholic bishops stated.
In a letter to the foreign minister of India, the Catholic Church acknowledged “the efforts of the government of India to secure the release of an abducted citizen of India from the hands of the terrorists.” However, the CBCI added that “it will be in the best interest of our country to step up the efforts to verify the veracity of this disturbing rumor” about Father Uzhunnalil’s alleged crucifixion. The CBCI also urged the government “to trace Father Tom and to secure his early release.”
Intense Media Attention
The CBCI’s comments follow widespread news reports on March 28 in the Indian media, most prominently in the southern state of Kerala, from which the priest hails.
The media attention was triggered by the Easter sermon of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who had hinted that the abducted Indian priest was crucified by Islamic State militants on Good Friday in Yemen. This was first reported in India on the morning of March 28 by Matters India, an independent Catholic news portal, quoting Austrian media reports about the cardinal’s sermon.
Within hours, Indian social media was abuzz with the rumor; and by that afternoon Indian news channels, especially in Kerala, which is India’s largest Christian stronghold, started displaying breaking-news tickers declaring “abducted Indian priest crucified.”
Father Uzhunnalil, a Salesian missionary whose hometown is Ramapuram in Kerala’s Palai Diocese, was abducted in early March from the Missionaries of Charity home for the aged where four nuns were murdered, along with 12 others in a suspected ISIS attack.
When this correspondent reached Ramapuram, 45 miles east of the coastal city of Kochi, the last week of March, Father George Njarakunnel, vicar of St. Augustine Church, said that he had been getting repeated calls requesting confirmation of the shocking news that Father Uzhunnalil had been crucified on Good Friday.
The parish had organized several prayer meetings for the safety of the priest since the news of his kidnapping circulated. Ramapuram is known for its bounty of vocations, with nearly 1,000 nuns and priests from the community’s 2,000 Catholic families.
Amid the media buzz about the crucifixion, even a senior Church spokesman in Kerala erroneously confirmed that the priest had been “crucified.”
This statement was made despite the fact that Bishop Paul Hinder of Abu Dhabi, head of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia that covers Yemen, had reiterated that the crucifixion story was only an unconfirmed “rumor.” Bishop Hinder told Catholic News Agency Monday that he has “strong indications that Father Tom is still alive in the hands of the kidnappers,” but could not give further information in order to protect the life of the priest.
Later, though, the Church spokesman retracted the statement, and Father Joyce Francis, Salesian provincial of Bangalore, to which the kidnapped priest belongs, also denied the rumor.
“We have no information on that so far. We hope and pray Father Thomas is alive,” Father Francis told the Register on March 29.
Father Thomas’ Brother
When this correspondent reached the ancestral house of Father Thomas on March 28, his 73-year-old eldest brother, Mathew, was alone at the simple house tucked away in the midst of rubber plants.
In fact, Mathew had rushed from Vadodra in Gujarat state in northwest India to Ramapuram as soon as the news broke earlier this month of the kidnapping of his younger brother.
With no TV or radio inside the usually locked-up house, Mathew seemed to be little aware of the frantic rumors that were going around in the electronic and social media.
“I trust in the Lord. Without his knowledge, nothing will happen,” Mathew responded, when asked about the difficult times the family has been experiencing.
“I read these [religious] books all the time. I have been doing it for years,” explained Mathew, pointing to The Poem of the Man God by the Italian ascetic Maria Valtorta. Asked how he spent the last three weeks alone in the family house, Mathew opened the book kept on the prayer table, hunting for some of the favorite passages that have always inspired him. He said he has copies of the same books in his house at Ramapuram as well as in Gujarat.
After 14 years of service in war-torn Yemen, Father Thomas had been relieved from his priestly duties in Yemen and returned to Bangalore. But he went back recently because his replacement, a Salesian colleague, did not get the required visa to stay with the Missionaries of Charity sisters at their home for the destitute in Aden, Mathew explained.
Since the death of his mother, Thresia, in September 2014, Mathew said, the house had been locked up, as four of his married younger siblings, including three brothers and a sister, are settled in the United States, while another sister lives more than 125 miles away from the family home.
“Father Thomas was with us when mother died,” Mathew recalled. “He is a very cool and quiet person. Once he had shown photos of buildings nearby hit by bullets.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.