Salesian priest says he was not harmed physically, does not know who his captors were
Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Indian priest who spent 18 months in captivity following a brutal attack at an elderly home in Yemen, said that his captors did him no physical harm and in fact tried to provide medical care for the diabetic priest.
“I thank God almighty for this day. He saved me healthy enough. Clear mind. Emotions under control until now,” Father Uzhunnalil told the Associated Press. “God has been extremely kind to me. No gun was pointed at me.”
The Salesian priest, who ministered at a mission in Yemen that had been founded by an uncle of his, was released this week thanks to negotiations apparently involving the Indian government and the Sultanate of Oman. The priest was transferred to Oman and then flew to Rome, where he had an emotional meeting with Pope Francis Wednesday.
In an email to reporters and others inquiring about the case, Bishop Paul Hinder, apostolic vicar to Southern Arabia, a territory that includes Yemen, wrote Saturday:
You may imagine how much also my heart was relieved when I received on Tuesday morning by phone from Muscat that the “operation” had been successful. Before Fr. Tom took the flight to Rome I could exchange a few words over the phone with him. Yesterday, finally, I had the opportunity to meet him in person within the Vatican. Needless to say that we both were moved to tears. During two hours I could speak to Fr. Tom in private, and he could tell me the story of the last 18 months. He asked me to keep the content of the conversation confidential. However, I can tell you that I met a man in amazingly good form taken into account the stress he had gone through. Even more impressive is the strong faith which has kept him in serenity despite the trial. He expressed his deep gratitude to God, to all those who prayed for him around the world and to those who were instrumental in the process of liberation. I can understand that many people would like to know further details. However, as far as I am concerned, I have convened with the security services which worked successfully on the issue to keep silent. It is also for the protection of Fr. Tom and other people who have to continue to live as normally as possible. Fr. Tom is at present under medical observation. After a certain time he will join his Salesian home province in Bangalore (Kerala). He will surely be grateful if he can take some rest without being bothered by curious people. I wish to thank His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos and his services in Oman, the Vatican Security, the authorities of Abu Dhabi and many others who discretely and successfully have worked for the release of Fr. Tom. When I met Fr. Tom he asked for my blessings. Then I knelt down and asked him to bless me. We both are deeply convinced that behind the work of the humans it is the work of God and the intercession of Our Lady, the Mother of God, which led the nightmare to a good end.
In an interview with AP, Father Uzhunnalil filled in some of the gaps in the story, which began in March 2016. He said that when the home for senior citizens in Aden was attacked, he identified himself as an Indian and he was brought to another room “while they killed the others.”
Sixteen people were murdered during the attack, including four Missionaries of Charity.
He said he didn’t know his kidnappers’ identities or affiliations. When they put him into the trunk of a car, he said that the tabernacle from the altar inside the senior home was at his feet. His hands weren’t tied, so he reached under the velvet cloth to make sure it contained four or five Eucharistic hosts that he had consecrated the day before.
“So I said to myself, without the knowledge of God, nothing will happen to me,” he said.
In some videos the kidnappers made it appear that they were harming him in an effort to get a speedy response in negotiations. At one point they even said they planned to crucify him on Good Friday. But Father Uzhunnalil said that they never harmed him. Indeed, they provided tablets to treat his diabetes and took care of his basic needs.
He was transferred several times during his captivity, but he doesn’t know where he was held, he said. His captors kept their faces covered in his presence.
The 57-year-old priest from Kerala believed his captors’ motive was ransom, although the Indian government said this week that no ransom money was involved. In addition, Father A. F. Artime, head of the Salesian order, said the congregation had no knowledge of any ransom having been paid.
“No one ever told us that they asked for money. No one asked us for even a euro,” Father Artime told AP. “We don’t know anything about this. This is the whole truth. And I believe that Father Tom knows even less.”
Father Uzhunnalil told AP that he had been transferred from Yemen by car to Oman, and then brought by air to the capital before continuing his journey to Rome.
Father Artime said the priest lost about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) during the ordeal, and described his health as “very delicate, very weak,” adding “he is calm of spirit.”