MUMBAI, India – Salesian Father George Muttathuparambil received the phone call at 11:15 in the morning on March 4, 2016.
Sister Sally, the mother superior of the Missionaries of Charity center in the Yemeni port city of Aden, was in a state of shock on the phone.
The other four sisters in her community were dead: Murdered by Islamic militants who stormed into the home for the elderly run by the order.
She also told Muttathuparambil that his fellow Salesian priest, Father Tom Uzhunnalil, was missing.
“Sister Sally had searched all over for the sisters and Father Tom,” the priest told Crux. “She phoned me and narrated the scene, and requested that I phone the Calcutta mother house, Bishop Hinder, and the Bangalore provincial. I contacted them, and told them all that happened.”
(Bishop Paul Hinder is the apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia. Uzhunnalil belongs to the Bangalore province of the Salesians.)
Muttathuparambil had been in Yemen for six years. The government had invited foreign priests and religious to work in the country to care for lepers, and to run homes for the elderly.
The Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by St. Mother Teresa, had been in Yemen since the 1980s, and had centers in the capital Sana’a, Aden, Taiz and Hodeidah.
The country was dangerous. The first place Muttathuparambil served was Hodeidah, where three nuns were murdered in 1988.
However, in 2015 things became worse when a civil war broke out in the country. The war pitted the government against Houthi rebels. Government forces were mostly Sunni Muslim, while the rebels were Shia; Militants affiliated with the Islamic State were also active in government-controlled areas.
Despite the increased instability and violence, the priests and religious in the country continued their work.
At the home for the elderly in Aden, March 4, 2016, started out like any other day: Mass, breakfast, and prayer.
However, armed men affiliated with the Islamic State then stormed the compound, and for 90 minutes hunted down the Missionaries of Charity serving there.
Four of the five nuns died: Sisters Anselm, Marguerite, Regina, and Judith. Sister Sally had hidden behind the door in the refrigerated room in the kitchen. Despite the fact the attackers entered the room several times searching for her, they never looked behind the door.
Twelve other people – volunteers working at the center – were also killed by the militants.
“For me, it was shock and unbelief,” said Muttathuparambil. The Salesian was serving in Taiz, about 110 miles away from Aden.
Nearly two years later, the events of that day are still clear in his head.
“Sister Sally was in a state of shock. She told me the bodies of the sisters were lying in the compound, but Father Tom was missing,” the priest said. “I kept calling her repeatedly. Later someone told her Father Tom was taken away in a car.”
Yemeni authorities later surmised the militants were intent on killing the religious sisters that day, and wanted to kidnap the priest.
When government security forces arrived, they tried to immediately take Sister Sally to a secure location. She refused at first, not wanting to abandon the residents at the home for the elderly.
However, after she was informed that the militants were likely to return to finish their mission if she stayed, the nun relented.
The bodies of the four slain nuns were also taken away.
“I was in continuous contact with Sister Sally on the phone, and we were trying to find out how to bury the sisters, as no one could go to the place because of the terrorists, and there was no one to help us in the city at the time,” Muttathuparambil told Crux.
The priest finally said a half-Yemeni Christian living and working in the capital Sana’a volunteered to go and try and arrange permission to receive the bodies of the four slain women for burial.
On March 9, he received the necessary permissions, and the four religious sisters were wrapped in white sheets and buried in the local Christian cemetery.
Muttathuparambil said the man who took on the task “gave the sisters dignity in death,” since no clergyman could go to Aden at the time.
Muttathuparambil said he felt safe in Taiz, since it was under rebel control, but said he was worried about what had happened to Uzhunnalil.
“I exposed the Blessed Sacrament, and the sisters and I began praying through the night,” he said.
On March 10, Muttathuparambil moved to Sana’a, since his passport was expiring. He had to return home, and had planned to return after two months. His superiors later decided the situation was too dangerous for him to return.
Sister Sally was also evacuated from the country.
Uzhunnalil was finally released into the custody of the Sultanate of Oman on September 12, 2017. After some time in Rome, he returned to his native India.
“We had no news of Father Tom, and his release was like a thunderbolt. I came to know from TV, confirmation from government came later,” Muttathuparambil said.
The Salesian priest told Crux he is praying that the war in Yemen ends soon, so peace and security can return to the country.
“The poor are suffering,” he said. “War and fighting are no solution. Innocent people suffer.”
Although the war drove the Salesians from their mission in the country, Muttathuparambil said their absence is only temporary.
“When it is time, we will return,” he said.