KOCHI: It was on March 4, 2016, Father Tom Uzhunnalil - a Catholic priest of the Salesian congregation serving in Yemen - was abducted by extremists. He was kidnapped during an attack at an old-age home run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Aden. Uzhunnalil had been living at the home for the elderly and disabled since September 2015, after the Holy Family parish church in Aden where he used to say mass was ransacked and burned down. Four Missionaries of Charity nuns and at least 12 others were killed in the March 4 attack.
Though efforts were initiated at the government-level to get the priest hailing from Ramapuram in Kottayam released, lack of diplomatic relation with civil war-hit Yemen and sketchy information about the extremists made the attempts all the more difficult for Indian authorities.“In the initial days, around eight extremist outfits reportedly attempted to own the abduction and demanded ransom money. ‘’Claim of abduction by different groups had confused the government making the rescue operation more difficult,’’ said Fr Jimmy Poochakkattu, spokesperson of the Syro Malabar Church. There were even reports the group which abducted the priest would crucify him.
After the abduction, Uzhunnalil himself made several appeals through video pleading for his release. In December 2016, the priest appealed to the Indian government and Pope Francis to secure his release. In May this year, in another video posted on YouTube, he was found accusing the Indian government and the Pope of doing little for his release. “If I were a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously. I am from India. Perhaps, I am not of much value,” he said in the video clip. He also claimed his captors had sent many messages to the then President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Modi to no avail.
On May 30 this year, his relatives had met Kerala Governor Justice P Sathasivam, seeking help. They requested him to pressure the Centre to intensify efforts to trace the priest. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy also accompanied the relatives. Besides, a team of Salesian priests led by the Bangalore provincial met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in August, pleading to intensify efforts for the release of their fellow priest.