MUMBAI, India – After a video surfaced featuring a Catholic priest from India kidnapped by Islamic militants in Yemen pleading with both the Indian government and his fellow Christians, including Pope Francis, to do more to secure his release, Indian officials have insisted that they’re doing everything they can.
The video of Father Thomas Uzhunnalil was uploaded to Facebook. He was abducted March 4 when four gunmen attacked a Missionaries of Charity-run retirement home in Aden, the provincial capital of Yemen, killing 16 people, including four Missionary of Charity sisters.
The Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes Yemen, also released a statement on Monday saying, ” Even though we have no information about Fr. Tom’s present whereabouts, we have strong indications to believe that he is still alive.”
“We thank all those around the world who have given us their support during these difficult months,” the statement said. “We request the faithful not to be drawn into a cycle of disturbance and spreading unconfirmed reports on social media but to continue their prayers for Fr. Tom as the channels try to secure his release.”
In the video, Uzhunnalil said “several months have gone by and my captors have made many contacts with the government of India to get me released.”
“If I were a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously. I am from India. I am perhaps not considered of much value,” Uzhunnalil said in a weak voice in the video, which was aired by news channels in Kerala in southern India, traditionally the country’s Christian stronghold.
“Dear Pope Francis, dear Holy Father, as a father please take care of my life. I am very much depressed. My health is deteriorating,” he said in the video, released the day after Christmas.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement saying that efforts to secure Uzhunnalil’s release have been underway for some time.
“You are aware of the circumstances currently prevailing in Yemen where fighting is going on with no central authority in that country,” it said.
“With regard to the safe release of Father Tom who was abducted some months ago, we have been in regular touch with countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia as also the local Yemeni authorities. Efforts continue in this regard,” spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.
So far, the Vatican has not officially commented, though Pope Francis in his noontime remarks on Monday issued a strong general plea on behalf of victims of anti-Christian persecution.
The veracity of the video, which was uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, could neither be independently verified, nor was the period when it was shot known.
In it, Uzhunnalil claimed his captors have made several attempts to contact the government of India, including the President and Prime Minister.
“I am very sad that nothing has been done seriously,” he said.
He said reports claim everyone is trying to get his release, “but in reality, nothing” has been done.
Uzhunnalil also said a French news reporter abducted in the Middle East has been released, but he remains in captivity.
“I am from India and not considered. Dear people, I pray you all, ask you all, beg you all to do your mightiest to help me to save my life. I need hospitalization soon. Please come to my help quickly,” he said.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj informed Parliament that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has spoken to various countries through which contacts can be established in Yemen. Swaraj said it takes time to secure the release of people who are held captive and asked MPs to keep “faith” in the government’s efforts to trace the abducted priest.
Speaking to Crux, Father Paul Thelakat, former spokesman of India’s Syro-Malabar Church, said, “While I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the video, it is very clear that Father Tom is under severe duress.”
“The video of Father Tom appealing for his life is very painful and distressing,” Thelakat said.
“Here is a priest in the custody of terrorists pleading for his life, with fear and anguish, almost 10 months after his abduction. The video clearly indicates that the terrorists are putting more pressure on India and the Church to succumb to their demands, whatever they may be.
“They’re negotiating on his life. We have to prove to this world of the terrorists that human life is so precious for us [that] we will sacrifice anything for one of our brethren. The Church also must prove our commitment to the life of a human being at any cost.”
Thelakat also insisted that the agony Uzhunnalil and others are experiencing is not pointless.
“The sufferings of that priest, and the deaths of four Missionaries of Charity sisters and 12 other people in the convent, will bear fruit in that country torn asunder by terrorism,” he said.