Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Indian priest who had been held captive for over a year by terrorists in Yemen, has been officially released.
The Sultan of Oman played the pivotal role in the release at the behest of the Vatican.
Father Tom Uzhunnalil is an Indian Catholic Priest hailing from the Ramapuram village in Kottayam, Kerala. He had been engaged in various missionary activities in Yemen since 2010. On March 4th 2016, he was at the Missionaries of Charity home in Aden. Four gunmen entered the premises under the guise of being relatives of some of the residents in the home. They opened fire almost immediately and killed 16 people. This included four sisters who were part of the Missionaries of Charity started by Mother Teresa. There have been reports that identify the gunmen as affiliates of ISIS, however, that has not been confirmed. They took Father Uzhunnalil as their hostage. He had been at the home working as the Chaplain.
During the period when he was held hostage, a video was posted on YouTube on March 2017. Father Uzhunnalil appeared in the video and made a plea to the Indian government and the authorities to help free him from captivity. In April, another video was released. In it, the Father requested help from the Vatican. He said, “My health condition is deteriorating quickly and I require hospitalization as early as possible.”
In September 12th, 2017, it was announced that Father Uzhunnalil had been freed from captivity. He was released into Omani custody. He expressed his gratitude to the Sultan of Oman, Qaboos bin Said al Said, for helping negotiate the terms of his release.
Minister of State (MoS) for Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) General V K Singh said, “Release of Father Uzhunnalil yesterday underlines one thing that the ministry of external affairs works quietly and without noise, but ultimately gets the work done. We know the type of criticism that had come couple of times when Father Uzhunnalil disappeared in Yeman. We are very happy that he has come back safely and I'm sure people will appreciate that we were able to get him out safe and sound.”
Union Minister Sushma Swaraj also took to Twitter to provide an update. She tweeted, “Fr Tom has spoken to me from Vatican. He profusely thanked the Government of India especially the Prime Minister for efforts to rescue him.” She added that the Father also expressed his gratitude to “the people of India for their concern and prayers for his release.”
According to a report in India Today, Vatican also played a key role in the release and was monitoring the situation as it unfolded. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India revealed that it had held multiple meetings with India’s Foreign Minister.
In an official statement the Omani government said, "In response to the Royal Orders of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and as per a request from the Vatican to assist in the rescuing of a Vatican employee, the concerned authorities in the Sultanate, in coordination with the Yemeni authorities, have managed to find him. He was transferred Tuesday morning to Muscat in preparation for his return home in Kerala".
Details have yet to be divulged on when and if Father Uzhunnalil would return to Kerala.
Our assessment is that Father Uzhunnalil represents the best in humanity. He made the choice to stay back and help those in need in Yemen, despite the fact the Indian government was evacuating thousands of Indians from the region due to violence. What is striking is that in a world that seems brimmed with hatred, the kind act of the Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said will be remembered and perhaps revered by millions of people around the world. It is perhaps the demonstration of compassion by Pope Francis while rescuing hundreds of Muslims and bringing some of them personally to the Vatican that may have touched the heart of the Sultan.