Salesian missionary meets Pope Francis after 18 months in captivity
The year and a half that Father Thomas Uzhunnalil spent in captivity by Islamic jihadists was filled with prayer, he revealed Wednesday as he met with Pope Francis.
The Indian priest told the Pope that throughout his time as a prisoner, he offered his suffering for him and for the Church.
According to L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, Father Uzhunnalil thanked the Pope, saying he “prayed for you every day, offering my suffering for your mission and for the good of the Church.” According to the newspaper, the words moved the Pope to tears.
The missionary visited the Pope’s residence in the Vatican’s St. Martha guesthouse after the general audience on Wednesday. Photos showed a clean-shaven priest who kissed Francis’s hands and the ground when he greeted the Pope. It was quite a different image of him than the photos that circulated yesterday, when he was released, which showed a diminished but smiling man with a long white beard and disheveled hair.
The Pope embraced the priest and told him that he was praying for him during his long captivity.
Father Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest, was held for more than 18 months after his kidnapping from a Salesian mission founded by his uncle, Father Matthew Uzhunnalil. The kidnapping was carried out in the midst of a brutal attack on a home for the care of elderly in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden. The attack left 16 people dead, including four sisters of the Missionaries of Charity who run the home.
Uzhunnalil told L’Osservatore Romano that during his captivity, he internally prayed the words of Mass every day, as he was not able to celebrate. He said he prayed especially for the four nuns killed in the attack.
No ransom was paid to secure the release of the priest, an Indian government official said Tuesday.
Asked at a press conference on Wednesday if any ransom was paid for the release of the priest, V.K. Singh, a Union minister, or member of India’s cabinet, responded flatly, “No.”
In a Sept. 13 letter, Father Ángel Fernández Artime, major rector of the Salesian order, said that “the Salesian Congregation was not asked for any ransom payment.”
The Oman government helped secure the priest’s release, ONA, Oman’s official news agency reported Tuesday. ONA said Omani authorities had coordinated with “Yemeni parties” to locate the priest and transfer him to the sultanate.
On the role played by Oman, Singh said at the press conference in India that various methods were adopted to tackle the problem.
“If a direct method failed to yield results, indirect methods are adopted and the aim is to get the problem solved,” he said.
Father Uzhunnalil arrived in Rome Wednesday after a stopover in Muscat, the capital of Oman. He was expected to spend a few days at a Salesian community before returning to India.
Originally from the state of Kerala, Father Uzhunnalil, 57, had been in Yemen four years at the time of his abduction.
Accompanying Father Uzhunnalil to the papal apartment was Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay. The cardinal told l’Osservatore Romano that after being released, Father Uzhunnalil said, “Truly, every day I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone.”
News of his release caused elation among the priest’s relatives back home.
“If he is alive, it is only because of the prayers of many people,” his cousin Vadkel Thomas told the BBC. “The entire family was devastated when he was abducted. The last 17 months have been really trying times for us. We were very depressed when those reports and videos of his crucifixion came. But, we are all in a celebratory state today.”
The Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, whose sisters in Aden had Father Uzhunnalil as their chaplain, told AsiaNews she was “overwhelmed” with joy at the news of the release.
“We never abandoned the hope that one day Father Tom would be released. His photograph is attached to Mother Teresa’s tomb,” Sister Mery Prema said. “The sisters, the poor and the people prayed every day for his liberation.”
Mgr. Thedore Mascarenhas, Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of India, told Fides news agency that the Indian bishops wished to thank the Indian government “for making every effort for the liberation of Father Tom.”
In a brief statement, the Vatican said: “The Holy See fervently thanks all those who worked for his release, and especially His Majesty the Sultan of Oman and the competent authorities of the Sultanate.”
Another Indian cabinet minister, Alphons Kannanthanam, said hectic diplomatic efforts were taken at various levels, including at the level of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Minister Sushma Swaraj, to bring the priest back to safety.
“The release of Father Uzhunnalil was made possible at the end of extremely complicated diplomatic efforts,” Alphons, who comes from the same state of Kerala as Father Uzhunnalil, told India Today.