After nearly a year since his kidnapping, Yemen officials say that Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil is in fact alive and efforts are being made for his release.
“The Yemeni deputy prime minister conveyed that as per available information, Father Tom was alive and the Yemen government has been making all efforts to secure his release,” Gopal Baglay, official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs in India said July 11.
The statement was made after Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdulmalik Abduljalil Al-Mekhlafi, told Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj that the Salesian priest was in fact alive, and that continued efforts were being made to obtain his release.
According to India’s Deccan Herald news service, Al-Mekhlafi met Swaraj during his current tour to New Delhi. Swaraj had inquired about Fr. Tom, voicing concern for his safety.
Baglay said Al-Mekhlafi “assured all cooperation” in working for the priest’s freedom.
The confirmation comes more than a year after Fr. Tom’s abduction. He was kidnapped in Yemen in March of last year during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity house that left four sisters dead.
He garnered international attention 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 videos were never officially authenticated, however Al-Mekhlafi’s assurance that the Kerala priest is alive confirms the likelihood the man shown was in fact Uzhunnalil.
In the most recent video, published in May, Fr. Tom spoke slowly in English, saying the Indian government has been contacted several times concerning his release. The bishop of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates has also been contacted, he said, claiming that he’s seen their responses, and they were “very, very poor.”
The priest indicated that he is in poor health, saying: “my health condition is deteriorating quickly, and I require hospitalization as early as possible,” he said.
He then made an appeal for his release, asking “my little family people” to do what they can “to help me be released. Please, please do what you can to help me be released. May God bless you for that.”
Since his kidnapping, Salesians in the Bangalore province of India have made continued efforts for his safety and release, including holding a prayer vigil Jan. 4 and a worldwide novena Jan. 15-23.
Although some attribute the kidnapping to ISIS, no one has claimed responsibility, which has made it difficult for the Indian government to broker the priest’s release. In addition, the situation has been exacerbated by the political instability in Yemen.
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.
By Elise Harris