NEW DELHI — The Church in India and the family of an Indian priest kidnapped by the Taliban have expressed relief and thanked India’s federal government for securing the release of the priest after eight months in captivity.
Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar, who was kidnapped in June 2014 in Herat province in western Afghanistan, was flown into New Delhi from Kabul on Feb. 22. He is the former head of Jesuit Refugee Service in Afghanistan.
“First of all, I thank God almighty. I thought I would be never safe. God has saved me,” Father Kumar told this correspondent in an interview at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi, after being escorted there by Indian government officials after his arrival on Feb. 22.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), in a statement on Feb. 23, said it “welcomes with joy the release of the Jesuit priest … who was abducted by the unidentified men at Herat in Afghanistan last June.”
The CBCI also thanked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “for the efforts taken by him personally and for the many steps adopted by the various agencies of the government of India to secure the safe release of Father Alexis Prem.”
“Delighted at securing the release of Indian Jesuit priest Father Alexis Prem Kumar from captivity in Afghanistan,” tweeted Modi on Feb. 22, as Father Kumar was on a flight home.
Prior to that, Modi spoke to family members of the 47-year-old kidnapped priest and broke the good news in Chennai, capital of the southern Tamil Nadu state.
“I could not believe when the prime minister told me that Father Alexis has been released and that he is coming,” said Sister Elizabeth Rani of the Congregation of Foyer de Charite, the priest’s elder sister.
Speaking to Register from the Ashoka Hotel, the nun said: “It was all Providence.”
Sister Elizabeth was visiting her father and brother in Chennai when the prime minister called with the news.
“My father could not speak English,” she said. “So I answered the call.”
“The prime minister promised me that he will make Alexis call me from the Delhi airport. I was thrilled when he [Father Alexis] called me as soon as he landed in Delhi at 7pm,” Sister Elizabeth added.
‘Our Prayers Have Been Heard’
Soon, all three of Father Kumar’s relatives were flown to Delhi by the government to be reunited with him.
“Our prayers have been heard. Thousands have been praying for his release daily,” Sister Elizabeth said.
John Joseph, the priest’s younger brother who accompanied his elderly father and elder sister-nun, said that he was “thrilled” by the sudden turn of events.
“Words are not enough to describe our feelings,” said Joseph, an engineer. “Our prayers have been heard. God is there.”
Although another of Father Kumar’s brothers, Albert Manoharan, was disappointed at being unable to be with him in Delhi, he said he was thrilled to see him on television in Devakotai more than 260 miles away.
Manoharan, a schoolteacher, told the Register, “The safe release of our brother will strengthen the faith of the people. This proves that prayer works miracles.”
Meanwhile, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, told The Hindu newspaper that he is “very glad” to witness the priest’s return to India, with Afghanistan “working overtime” and “leaving no stone unturned” to secure the Jesuit priest’s release.
“The best thing was to see him safe and back to India,” said Abdali, who declined to elaborate on the nature of negotiations. “We were deeply hurt by his captivity.”
Jesuit Father George Pattery, the South Asia provincial for the Society of Jesus, was leading a meeting of all the Jesuit provincials in India in Mumbai when he learned of the release. He told the Register, “We are excited and consoled.”
“We could not believe the news, as there were no hints about it,” Father Pattery said. “We are relieved, as we were getting more and more worried.”
Father Kumar’s Service
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has been working in Afghanistan since 2008, accompanying refugees home from exile in Iran and Pakistan and providing education and health-care services in Bamiyan, Kabul and Herat. In 2013, more than 6,000 people from disadvantaged communities benefitted from these services, according to JRS.
Father Kumar served as director of the India branch of the charity from 2005 to May 2011. He took an assignment with the JRS in Afghanistan in July 2011. Elevated as chief for Afghanistan in 2012, Father Kumar was abducted by gunmen on June 2 at a school built and run by the Society of Jesus in Sohadat.
More than a dozen priests, including Jesuit Father Susai Sebastian, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Delhi, were with three dozen media persons awaiting the arrival of the freed priest at the airport.
“The prime minister spoke to me. When he was speaking, I felt that the whole of India was welcoming me. I am grateful and thankful to the Jesuits and all others who have worked for my release,” Father Kumar said.
Asked by members of the media to shed light on his eight months of captivity, the priest wearily replied, “I want to forget everything for some time.”
“Anything about Afghanistan, or what happened, I am not ready to share now. Please pardon me,” pleaded Father Kumar. “I have plenty of stories. But I feel it is not the right time to share all those.”
When asked whether or not he was angry about the kidnapping and captivity, Father Kumar said, “I will continue to work with people who are neglected and lost hope wherever I am sent.”
And, upon being asked for his message to the Catholic world, Father Kumar said: “Tell them I am grateful to the prayers of all … the Vatican, the Jesuits, the JRS and all. God has heard our prayers.”
Then Father T.R. John, one of his Jesuit colleagues, asked Father Kumar, “Did you get proper food?”
“It was hard,” replied Father Kumar.
“Let’s forget all that,” added the visibly thin and weak priest. “Let’s rejoice now.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.