Liberated Salesian missionary Father Tom Uzhunnalil bowed down to kiss the feet of Pope Francis at his Santa Marta residence this morning, after today’s weekly general audience.
The Holy Father welcomed the Indian missionary who was freed yesterday after being held captive for 18 months by Islamist militants in Yemen.
The Pope immediately raised Father Tom to his feet, embraced and encouraged him, assuring the priest he would continue to pray for him as he had done during his captivity, according to L’Osservatore Romano. The Vatican newspaper added that the Pope was “visibly moved, and blessed him.”
For his part Father Tom, as he is familiarly known, thanked the Pontiff, saying he had “prayed every day for him, offering his own suffering for his mission and for the good of the Church.” The words “touched the Pope,” L’Osservatore Romano reported.
The religious, who was kidnapped on March 4, 2016 in a terrorist attack at a residential home of the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, also said he was “not able to celebrate the Eucharist,” but every day, he repeated “in my heart, all the words of the celebration.”
Father Tom promised to now continue "to pray for all” who had supported him “spiritually,” and remembered in particular the four sisters of the Missionaries of Charity and the twelve people killed at the time of his abduction.
He expressed special gratitude to the Omani government which helped secure his release, as did the Holy See in a statement released yesterday.
Accompanying the Salesian today was Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay. “After this terrible experience, the essential message that Father Tom would like to convey is that ‘Jesus is great and loves us,’” the cardinal said.
Father Tom said “actually, every day, I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone.”
The Salesian missionary will remain in Rome for some medical tests, but Cardinal Gracias said his health “is good” and that he had “no particular problems and was well treated” during his months of captivity.
Speaking to reporters, Father Tom said he was not tortured and the militants “did not behave badly towards me even once during the entire one-and-a-half–years” but life in the Islamic State camp was “full of challenges.”
“I had to wear a single cloth during the entire period,” he said, and when he began to lose much weight, “they gave me medicines for diabetes.” He said the militants “shifted the camp three times after the abduction” and blindfolded him every time during each transfer.
He recounted how, the night before the attack and his abduction, the director of the home in Aden said their lives were at stake and it would be good to sacrifice them for Jesus. One sister said she wanted to live for Jesus, and she “miraculously escaped” when the terrorists attacked the next day, Father Tom said.
A native of Kerala, Father Tom, 57, said he was brought up in the Christian faith by a deeply Catholic family. His uncle Matthew, who died in 2015, was also a Salesian priest, and founded the mission in Yemen. At the time of his abduction, Father Tom had been in the country for four years.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has insisted no ransom was paid to secure Father Tom’s release, but did not specify how exactly he was freed, only that various methods were adopted to “get the problem solved.”
Indian minister Alphons Kannanthanam said “extremely complicated diplomatic efforts” were made to secure Father Tom’s freedom, which included the help of the office of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
India received help from Saudi Arabia as well as Oman, Kannanthanam said.