MUMBAI – Catholics in India are offering prayers for the swift release of a 40-year-old female Catholic aid worker kidnapped Thursday night in Afghanistan, reportedly by a crime cartel specialized in abductions of foreign nationals.
On Sunday at St. Sebastian Chapal in Calcutta, Archbishop Thomas D’Souza celebrated Mass and offered “special prayers for the safe release and return of Ms. Judith D’Souza.”
D’Souza is an Indian Catholic and gender specialist who had been working as a senior technical adviser in Kabul for the Aga Khan Development Network since July 2015.
The network specializes in relief efforts on behalf of Ismailis, a community within Shia Islam, and the societies in which they live. It’s reportedly pumped more than $750 million into the war-torn nation’s reconstruction.
D’Souza, an alumna of Loreto Sealdah school and St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, and the youngest of three siblings, was set to return to her parents’ home in India next week on a month-long annual break.
Speaking to Crux, the archbishop added, “Tomorrow being Sunday, I have instructed all our parishes to pray for the safety and release of Judith D’Souza during the Sunday Mass.”
Officials have reached the conclusion that D’Souza was kidnapped on the basis of accounts by residents who were familiar with her habits and by those who witnessed the incident.
These residents informed the police, who in turn contacted the Indian embassy in Kabul. The mission then contacted her family in Calcutta. Her father, Denzel D’Souza, received the call.
Archbishop D’Souza told Crux, “I am deeply saddened at the kidnapping of Ms. Judith Souza. She was serving the people and rendering yeoman’s service to others.”
He went on to express his confidence in the government’s ability to return her to her home.
“We pray for her safe release and return, and we are sure that the government of India is doing everything to ensure her safety and release,” he said.
Sources said that the Indian government has been in touch with her family in Calcutta and with the Afghani authorities.
“All efforts are being made by Afghan authorities to secure her early release,” they said.
According to a Saturday report in the newspaper the Indian Express, police and security officials in Kabul say the kidnapping is most likely the work of one of several organized crime cartels who have earned millions of dollars in ransom from snatching foreigners serving in the country.
D’Souza’s mother, Gloria, said they had spoken two days ago, and had booked her flight back home to Calcutta on June 15. She said Judith had asked what they wanted from Afghanistan.
However confident the archbishop is, officials in Delhi and Kabul were reluctant to speak on the issue, pointing out that unverified information might complicate negotiations with the kidnappers when they take place.
The Indian leadership too was measured in its public response. The Prime Minister was briefed about the incident, according to local media reports, and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was seeking hourly feedback from Kabul throughout the day, officials said.
“We will spare no efforts to rescue her,” Sushma tweeted.
After Judith’s elder brother Jerome messaged her on Twitter, Sushma responded: “She is your sister and India’s daughter. We are doing everything to rescue her.”
“An investigation by the authorities has been launched, in conjunction with security officials and various partners,” Semin Abdulla, a spokesperson for the Aga Khan Foundation, said in an email from the group’s headquarters.
“Every effort is being made to secure the safe release of the staff member.”
Judith D’Souza was abducted on June 9 at 10:40 pm, when she left her office to return home.
At least two other Indian Catholics have been kidnapped abroad in the last few years.
Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar, from Tamil Nadu state, was kidnapped in June 2014 and held in captivity for more than eight months before being released in Feb. 2015.
Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Salesian from southern India, was abducted in Yemen in March 2016, and is still missing. Uzhunnalil was originally reported to have been crucified by ISIS forces, but according to India’s government he’s still alive and they are negotiating for his release.