Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the Indian priest who was released last month after being kidnapped and held hostage by Islamic extremist in Yemen for over 18 months, will be awarded the Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice.
Father Tom had the option of leaving Yemen in 2015 but instead chose to stay, and provide humanitarian aid in the midst of terror.
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 serving as Chaplain at the Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, when four gunmen entered the premises under the guise of being relatives of some of the residents in the home. They opened fire and killed sixteen people present. This included four nuns who were part of the Missionaries of Charity, started by Mother Teresa. Father Uzhunnalil was taken hostage. There have been unconfirmed reports that identify the gunmen as affiliates of ISIS.
Following this, a video was posted on YouTube on March 2017 in which Father Uzhunnalil made a plea to the Indian government and the authorities to help free him from captivity. In April, another video was released, in which Father Uzhunnalil 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.
The release was made possible by the intervention of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the ruler of Oman in deference to the request from the Vatican. Oman’s Ministry of Information released photographs of the priest, bearded and looking frail, standing by an airplane.
“In response of the Royal Orders of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said and as per a request from the Vatican to assist in rescuing a Vatican employee, the concerned authorities in the Sultanate, in coordination with the Yemini authorities, have managed to find him. He was transferred Tuesday morning to Muscat in preparation for his return home in Kerala” the Omani statement said.
Father Tom flew from Muscat on an Omani Air force flight to Rome where he first thanked the Holy Father. He then flew to New Delhi to meet the Indian Prime Minister and other ministers of the cabinet.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of India thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ms. Swaraj for ‘persistently and persevering’ in trying to obtain his release. In July, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had met AbdulmalikAbdulalil Al – Mekhlafi, deputy Prime Minister of Yemen in Delhi who confirmed that Fr. Uzhunnalil was alive and the Yemen Government has been making all efforts to secure his release.
Father Tom said that he felt Jesus ‘next to’" him every day during his ordeal. "Truly, every day I felt Jesus next to me, I always knew and felt in my heart that I was not alone," he said.
After receiving medical treatment, Father Tom returned to his hometown in Kerala, where he was given a hero’s welcome. At a public reception held for the priest, Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala’s Chief Minister said, “Father Tom held on to hope with his spirit of determination in front of death. He is an illuminating lamp in the darkness of suffering. ... He is a model to us.”
Father Tom on his release has continued to express his gratitude to everyone who had prayed for him. He said, “Because of your prayers I am with you. … I was under captivity, and now I am addressing you. Let us thank God.” He also took time to thank people from other religions adding, “I have been told by my relatives that even Hindus and Muslims conducted prayers for me.” Father Tom’s graciousness has even extended to his captors. He said, “Nobody had pointed a gun at me during my captivity. ... They never tortured me. They gave me food three times a day, even when they were fasting for Ramadan.”
In an extraordinary moment, he has also admitted that he would return to Yemen to continue with his humanitarian efforts. He said, “Certainly I will go there if God wishes me to do so. I am sure He would clear the way for me to do so.”
Our assessment is that Father Tom is an extraordinary humanitarian committed to aiding the downtrodden and the underprivileged. Despite the inherent danger to him, Father Tom has expressed his intent to return to the very country where he was held captive. His humility and grace under fire are illustrations of the good in humanity. What is so striking about this Salesian priest is his ability to instantly forgive his captors and not be bitter about his eighteen months captivity in solitude. He has spoken well of those who kept him in confinement, highlighted the support that the Hindu and Muslim community gave him and said that he is a citizen of the world – truly a Catholic – a universalist, and a man of God.