After a team from the Salesian religious order met with India’s Minister of External Affairs to plead for the swift release of fellow Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped in Yemen more than a year ago, the minister reportedly told the group the priest is alive and could be released soon.
According to a report by the news site Matter India, the minister, Sushma Swaraj, said she feels for the “unimaginable trauma and suffering” Uzhunnalil has had to endure.
Uzhunnalil was kidnapped March 4, 2016, after suspected Islamic terrorists stormed a home for elderly people managed by the Missionaries of Charity nuns in the port city of Aden. The assailants shot dead 16 people, including four nuns, before kidnapping the priest, who served as chaplain of the house.
The priest belongs to Salesians of Don Bosco’s Bangalore province. He had been working as a missionary under Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia.
In May, a video was released showing a cardboard sign with the date April 15, 2017, sitting on the lap of a thin-looking Uzhunnalil, who appeared with overgrown hair and a beard. In it, he begged Pope Francis for a personal intervention and expressed frustration that Church officials had not done more to secure his freedom.
“Dear Pope Francis…as a father, please take care of my life,” Uzhunnalil said, speaking slowly from a prepared script.
Pope Francis did appeal for the priest’s release April 10, 2016, after his Sunday Regina Coeli address in St. Peter’s Square.
“I renew my appeal for the freeing of all kidnapped persons in armed conflict zones,” the Pope said. “In particular, I wish to remember Salesian priest Tom Uzhunnalil, who was abducted in Aden, Yemen last March 4.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, but it’s widely believed Islamic militants are behind it. Swaraj told the Salesian delegation that the Indian government has identified Uzhunnalil’s release as one of its highest priorities.
Besides Bangalore provincial Father Joyce Thonikuzhilyil, the team visiting the minister included vice provincial Father Jose Koyickal, Father George M.K., and Delhi provincial Father Jose Mathew. Father Anand David Xalxo from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India accompanied them.
According to the Matters India report, his meeting with Swaraj was arranged by Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Indian bishops’ conference.
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since March 2015, when Shia rebels attempted to oust Yemen’s Sunni-led government. Saudi Arabia has led a pro-government coalition. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have set up strongholds in the country amid the power vacuum. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
Since Uzhunnalil’s kidnapping, Salesians in the Bangalore province of India have continued efforts for his safety and release, including holding a prayer vigil Jan. 4 and a worldwide novena Jan. 15-23.