Father Tom Uzhunnalil 'Safe', Release Could Be 'Imminent'

But Bishop Paul Hinder urges caution and prudence.

(photo: Register Files)

An Indian Salesian priest kidnapped in Yemen in early March is “safe”, efforts to release him are in their “final phase”, and he is thought to be in the hands of anti-government rebel forces rather than ISIS, according to both Indian government and Church sources.

Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, quoted by Asia News May 18, said that Father Tom Uzhunnalil is alive and "safe", and at the moment "last efforts" are being made to "ensure his release".

The news that he is safe is “reliable”, according to The New Indian Express. It added that some Church officials who have been part of the rescue efforts “could speak to Father Tom over the phone.”

The reports have raised hopes of his imminent freedom, although Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar for Southern Arabia, has urged caution. He told Asia News May 18 "there are no new elements" and as the priest's fate is still uncertain, he has called for "prudence" not to prejudice the outcome of ongoing negotiations for his release.

Indian Church sources have also echoed the words of Swaraj, adding that Father Tom is not, as was initially thought, in the hands of ISIS, a particularly brutal group of Islamists also known as the Islamic State, but "anti-government forces" present in Yemen.

Shiite Houthi rebels, who have been battling Yemeni government forces for more than a year, are thought to be behind the kidnapping, although there is no explicit confirmation of a group’s involvement.

Houthis are just one of a number of Islamist groups in the country, according to the BBC. They are opposed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has perpetrated a number of deadly attacks in Yemen’s south and south-east. In 2014, they were joined by another Islamist group, an affiliate of ISIS, which seeks to eclipse AQAP and claims it carried out a series of suicide bombings in Sanaa in March 2015.

Father Tom was seized March 4 after a militant group stormed a home for the sick and elderly run by Bl. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Aden in the country's south west. Four sisters of the religious congregation and 12 lay people were killed in the attack on the facility.

According to an eyewitness report recounted by Aleteia, Father Tom was residing on campus because the church in town where he was based had been sacked and burned last September. The Salesian priest “heard the screaming and consumed all the Hosts,” the account noted.  However, “he had no time to consume the large Host, so he threw the oil out of the sanctuary lamp and dissolved it in the water." The letter reported that a neighbor saw the terrorists put the priest into their car. “They did not find any trace of Father anywhere.”

During Holy Week, unconfirmed stories began circulating in India claiming that the kidnappers planned to crucify the priest on Good Friday. Pope Francis appealed for Father Uzhunnalil’s release last month.

In its most recent statement, issued May 5, the Salesians said the situation was "still uncertain" but added there were "deep and heartfelt prayers" for Father Tom in the hope he could soon "continue the valuable service" he was carrying out at the Yemeni mission.