New Delhi: Ending the nightmare of 18 months in ISIS captivity in Yemen, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil from Kerala has regained his freedom bringing a huge sigh of relief to his family and friends and the Catholic Church in general. He was rescued reportedly at the intervention of Oman which utilised its influence in Yemen. He was brought to Muscat in an Omani military plane on Tuesday morning and later flown to Vatican, which had intervened in speeding up the rescue efforts. The Indian government, which confirmed on Tuesday that he had been rescued, had said recently that it was working to get the priest released. “I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued,” external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted.
An international newswire report from Muscat had cited Oman’s official news agency as saying that Oman had secured the release of Fr Tom. Some media reports said Fr Tom had thanked Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos for his release and that he had been flown to Muscat. Fr Tom was kidnapped in Yemen by suspected ISIS militants on March 4, 2016, after they attacked a care home operated by missionaries in the southern port city of Aden, killing 16 people. He had, in a video circulated in December last year, blamed India and the Vatican for lack of action in securing his release.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expressed joy over the release of Fr. Tom and said, “as we thank God for this unique grace bestowed on Fr. Tom and his family and the Salesian Congregation ( 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.” The CBCI thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ms Sushma Swaraj and the government of India for working to obtain the release of Fr. Tom. It also thanked Pope Francis who took personal interest in Fr. Tom’s release and Bishop Paul Hinder, Vicar-Apostolic of Southern Arabia, the Bishop in charge of the Middle East, and the Sultan of Oman, for their efforts. “We thank all men and women of goodwill who stood with us with prayer and encouragement.” It said in a statement.
After a video started doing the rounds last December showing Fr. Tom blaming the Indian government and the Vatican for the alleged lack of action in securing his release, India had then said it was in regular touch with Yemeni authorities and Saudi Arabia regarding his safe release. The video showed him pleading for help and it became viral. The priest said in the video, "Several months have gone by and my captors have made many contacts with the government of India to get me released. Honourable President and Prime Minister of India, I am very sad nothing has been done seriously in my regard. Reports say that everything is being done to get me released quickly but in reality nothing seems to have happened." He further said that had he been a European priest, “I would have been taken more seriously by authorities and people and (they) would have got me released. I am from India and, therefore, I perhaps am not considered as of much value."
He had reportedly referred to a kidnapped French journalist who was released and said this had happened because the journalist was from France. Ms. Swaraj had told concerned Christian priests who had met her last month that "all efforts are made with utmost urgency by the government of India and help is sought from governments, organisations, and people who could assist in this process." Further, she had asserted that "Fr. Tom is alive and safe for sure and it is the strong hope of the government that he could be released soon."
In December last year, Ms. Swaraj had said that India will spare no effort to secure his release and that the life of every Indian is most precious for the government, pointing out further that the government had got two Indian nationals (including another Christian priest) freed earlier from Afghanistan. "I have seen the video from Fr. Tom. He is an Indian citizen and the life of every Indian is most precious for us. We got Fr Alex Prem Kumar and Judith D'Souza released from Afghanistan. We have spared no effort and we will spare no effort to secure Fr. Tom's release from captivity," Ms. Swaraj had said.