Salesian Indian missionary Fr Thomas Uzhunnalil, seized more than 18 months ago in Yemen by a group of guerrillas, is released. According to the Indian media who announced the news, the Salesian religious is now in Muscat, Oman. Official confirmation came from a tweet by Sushma Swaraj, the Honourable Indian Foreign Minister.
Fr Uzhunnalil was kidnapped by a group of armed men on March 4, 2016, during an attack on the home of the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen, where 16 people died, including 4 religious.
Originally from the Indian state of Kerala, Fr Uzhunnalil, now 59, had been in Yemen four years at the time of his abduction, serving in the Salesian mission initiated by his uncle, Fr Matthew Uzhunnalil.
The news of his release spread rapidly worldwide and excited great joy among those who had been waiting months for this day. “I’m overwhelmed [with joy] for this good news,” sr. Mery Prema said to AsiaNews. The Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, whose sisters in Aden had Fr Tom as their chaplain, sr Mery added, “And praise God for His mercy. We never abandoned the hope that one day Fr Tom would be released. His photograph is attached to Mother Teresa’s tomb. The sisters, the poor and the people prayed every day for his liberation. We give glory to God and thank all those who prayed and worked untiringly for the release of Fr Tom.”
“First of all, we express our deepest gratitude to God for the happy conclusion of this affair,” said Mgr. Thedore Mascarenhas, Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of India, to the Fides news agency.
“On behalf of the Indian bishops who have spent so much for the liberation of their fellow countrymen, beginning with the President of the Bishops Conference, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal,” said Mgr. Mascarenhas who wished to thank the Indian government, “for making every effort for the liberation of Fr Tom,” and especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj; Pope Francis, “who has used all his influence”; the Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, Msgr. Paul Hinder, with whom the Indian bishops were throughout the ordeal “in constant contact”; the Rector Major and the Salesian Provincial of Bangalore, “for their patience and for their deepest faith.
The Rector Major, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, expresses great joy and satisfaction in his statement on the liberation of Fr Thomas Uzhunnalil. Having just returned from Malta, Fr Á. F. Artime immediately wanted to write a message to all the Salesians and members of the Salesian Family around the globe to share the happiness of this highly hoped for event and to thank all those who collaborated towards Fr Thom’s release.
“This is the great news: our brother Thomas has been liberated and is here with us now,” the Rector Major begins, recalling the rapid development in yesterday’s events, September 12.
Fr Á. F. Artime continued by explaining that Fr Uzhunnalil would continue to be housed at the Salesian community at the Vatican until the medical staff considered it appropriate and that later he would be able to return to India.
“There are many things we do not know,” added the Rector Major regarding the circumstances of his release. “A few months ago, as a Congregation, we were informed about the contacts being established with the kidnappers (…). In fact, we had news of his release only yesterday when Fr Thomas had almost arrived to Italy.”
In addition to thanking “the Sultan of Oman and relative authorities of the Sultanate, humanitarian operators, and all those who in various ways dealt with this case on various occasions with generous commitment,” Fr Á.F. Artime also stated that “the Salesian Congregation has not been asked to pay any ransom, and we have no news of any payments having been made.”
The Rector Major spoke of the “great affection” and “constant concern” of the Bangalore Province and of the entire Congregation during the long months since his abduction.
Finally, the Rector Major gave thanks “to the thousands and thousands who have prayed with such faith during these eighteen months of our brother Thom’s Gethsemane.”
Fr Uzhunnalil’s release is a reason for continuing to respond in the future “with greater fidelity and authenticity to His summons and to the charism that He has entrusted to us and to whom Fr Thom has delivered his life: the announcement of Jesus and of His Gospel, the predilection for children and young people from all over the world, and among them: the poorest and abandoned.”
The meeting began around 6 PM in the Vatican. Present: the Rector Major’s Vicar, Fr Francesco Cereda, as the Rector Major was still engaged in his visit to Malta; Salesians of the Vatican community and the General House; and most notably, Fr Thomas Anchukandam, a former professor of Fr Uzhunnalil, who authorized sending the missionary to Yemen when he was Superior of the Bangalore Province.
The greeting was immediately fraternal: Fr Uzhunnalil was honored with the “ponnada”, the dress traditionally consigned to special guests of honor, and he received the emotional embrace of all those present. For his part, the Indian missionary did not nothing but repeat words of thanks, first of all to God and the Madonna.
One of his first requests was to pray in the chapel of the Salesian community in the Vatican. He also wanted to celebrate Mass immediately after, but due to necessary medical examinations he was forced to postpone the fulfillment of his wish. Nevertheless, before the arrival of the medical staff, he asked to be confessed, since this had obviously not been possible throughout his time in prison.
Different, instead, the discourse for the Eucharist; during the festive evening offered him by the Salesian community, featuring traditional Indian foods, Fr Uzhunnalil said that throughout his time as hostage he continued to spiritually celebrate Mass every day, remembering by heart the readings and the parts of the Mass, since he did not have liturgical texts or species with which to celebrate.
For his part, Fr Uzhunnalil appeared calm and open to questions; without going into details he answered the questions of his confreres. He confirmed he was in the chapel of the community of the Missionaries of Charity of Aden when the assailants kidnapped him. After being kidnapped, Fr Uzhunnalil said he was never mistreated and that following his rapid weight loss, his kidnappers had even begun to provide him with the medication he needed for his diabetes.
Throughout the period of imprisonment, however, he wore the same clothes; with his kidnappers – who spoke Arabic – he communicated with a bit of English; and during his imprisonment he was transferred two or three times, but always blindfolded.
“I never thought I could be killed,” said the missionary who also recalled an episode on March 3, 2016, the night before the massacre: the Director of the Missionaries of Charity house of Aden, commenting on the difficult situation in which the religious found themselves in the war zone, had said it would have been nice to be martyred all together for Christ. But the youngest of the religious – who then survived the attack – replied: “I want to live for Christ.”
Fr Uzhunnalil is currently being hosted in the Salesian community of the Vatican. The Salesian Congregation has taken such a decision by considering it the most suitable place to ensure his care and allow him full recovery.
A concrete manifestation of closeness and affection by the Rector Major to “a confrere who was lost, far from us, and who was able to return among us,” this the purpose of Fr Ángel Fernández Artime’s donating his Salesian Cross to Fr Thomas Uzhunnalil at the end of their meeting at the Salesian community in the Vatican yesterday, September 13.
Seated in front of the painting of Mary Help of Christians, and only a few steps from the Saint and painting of Don Bosco, and before paying homage to the Indian missionary with his cross, Fr Á.F. Artime spoke of the long months of imprisonment: “Many times we have asked the Lord that His will be done and that you never lack inner strength. We can see this has been so.” When added he was certain of Mary’s continued support by Fr Tom’s side, “There is no doubt that she accompanied you every day like a mother,” the Salesian missionary nodded with conviction.
After expressing his closeness to Fr Tom’s family, the Rector Major handed him his Salesian cross, and spoke of the full value of this gesture. “I want to offer you my Salesian cross, which I always bring with me, so that you can bring it with you. And with this sign, it is a bit as if all Salesians, from today, were with you now and forever.”
The joy for the liberation of Fr Tom has quickly spread across the globe. Thousands of people have expressed gratitude to God for this gift. In the midst of a world full of tension, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil is an image of serenity and peace. The Rector Major, just returned from Malta, immediately wanted to meet his Salesian confrere.
The Rector Major, Fr Ángel Fernández Artime, reported directly: “In the afternoon of September 13, I had the joy and the happiness of meeting my beloved brother Fr Tom, now in the Salesian community at the Vatican. I greeted him in the Indian style, and we gave each other a strong hug as a sign of fraternal affection.
He is still thin, but I found him serene, lucid and with a great inner peace. He expressed his deep thanks to the Lord and to the Congregation, for he felt strongly accompanied by the Salesian Family who prayed for him, along with the religious of other congregations.
I was deeply impressed in learning that he celebrated the Eucharist every day, even without bread and wine, offering the Lord what he was going through.
He lived many simple things as a gift of God, like sleeping serenely and living every moment in peace. At the beginning of each new day he continued to pray, speaking with the Lord, offering himself for everyone, for the Church, for the young.
Truly, Fr Tom gave me a testimony of faith that has touched me. We prayed in the Chapel of the Salesian Community and I gave him the blessing of Mary Help of Christians. I offered the ‘good night’ and said to him that with my presence were all his Salesian confreres and the Salesian Family across the globe.
I said him that if he would allow me, I wished to offer him the Salesian Cross I always bring with me. I handed it to him with affection, and he received it with deep gratitude, and we the sang the ‘Hail, Holy Queen’ to our common Mother.
We also shared a very simple dinner. I found that he weighs little, eats slowly but is eating well. The doctors said he was weak, but that it would just be a matter of time and rest and he would be well. It was a moment of great fraternity.
It was a special day, indeed, marked by Fr Tom’s meeting with the Holy Father, who received him with the affection of a father, with the simplicity that characterizes him.” and the affection he has for us all.”