by Elise Harris
After more than 18 months of questions and uncertainty regarding the fate of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil following his abduction by militants in Yemen, the priest has finally been set free and is on his way home to India.
The news was officially announced by Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in a Sept. 12 tweet that read: “I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued.”
Fr. Tom, a Salesian missionary, first garnered the world’s attention when he was kidnapped March 4, 2016, during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen, that left 16 people dead, including four Sisters.
His international profile grew when rumors spread that he was to be crucified on Good Friday, which were later discredited. Since then, numerous photos and videos have been released picturing Fr. Tom, thin and with an overgrown beard, pleading for help and for his release.
The Salesian Information Agency, which has been keeping tabs on the status of Fr. Tom’s case, also reported the news of his release.
According to the state-run Oman News Agency, Fr. Tom’s release was secured by Oman, and he has already arrived in the Omani capital of Muscat. The priest is expected to return to his home in Kerala, India shortly.
In a statement from Oman News Agency, which was published in the Oman Observer, Fr. Tom had “expressed thanks to God Almighty” following his release.
“In compliance with the His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman in coordination with the Yemeni parties have managed find a Vatican priest,” the statement read.
It relayed that Fr. Tom “has been transferred to Muscat from where he will return to his home in Kerala.”
A statement from the Holy See said Fr. Tom “will remain for a few days in a Salesian community in Rome before going home to India.”
In addition to offering thanks to God, the priest also voiced gratitude to Sultan Qabbos as well as “his brothers and sisters and all relatives and friends who called on God for safety and release.”
Pope Francis was among those who advocated on behalf of Fr. Tom, calling for the priest’s release April 10, 2016, after his Sunday Regina Coeli address in St. Peter’s Square.
“I renew my appeal for the freeing of all kidnapped persons in armed conflict zones,” the Pope said. “In particular, I wish to remember Salesian priest Tom Uzhunnalil, who was abducted in Aden, Yemen last March 4.”
Since his kidnapping, tireless efforts had been made on the part of the government and the Indian bishops to secure his release, and numerous prayer vigils and novenas were organized by the Salesians in Bangalore praying for his safety.
It is still unclear exactly which group is responsible for Fr. Tom’s abduction. Many reports claim that ISIS was responsible, however, the rumors remain unconfirmed.
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since March 2015, when Shia rebels attempted to oust Yemen’s Sunni-led government. Saudi Arabia has led a pro-government coalition. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have set up strongholds in the country amid the power vacuum. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
The Catholic bishops of India voiced their “immense joy on getting the news of the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil.”
“As we thank God for this unique grace bestowed on Fr. Tom and his family and the Salesian Congregation (The Society of Don Bosco) and the Catholic Church in India, we pray for his continued good health and complete recovery to resume active Salesian ministry for God and His people in his Congregation and the Church.”
In a statement, the Indian Bishops’ Conference thanked everyone who had prayed for Fr. Tom’s release.
The statement was signed by Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the conference.
Offering “profound gratitude to God,” the bishops also thanked Indian government officials – especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of External Affairs Srimati Sushma Swaraj – for working to obtain Fr. Tom’s safety.
They further thanked Pope Francis, who “took personal interest in Fr. Tom’s release efforts,” as well as Bishop Paul Hinder of Southern Arabia (whose apostolic vicariate serves Catholics in Yemen) and the Sultan of Oman for their efforts, and the leaders of the priest’s community for their perseverance.
“Fr. Tom’s release gives immense joy to the Catholic Church in India and the Salesian Family and all the people of India and we place on record our gratitude to all for their immense faith in God and persevering prayers that God in his goodness and mercy has heard and answered,” the bishops’ conference said.