In the nine months of anxiety since his kidnapping, a new video has surfaced featuring a person believed to be Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil SDB making a passionate plea for his release.
Saleh Salem, an unidentified person, uploaded the video on YouTube on December 24. Although reports speculate different groups are responsible for the kidnapping, yet no particular group has taken responsibility and identified themselves.
Speaking exclusively to Indian Currents, Bishop Paul Hinder of the Vicariate of Southern Arabia said, “After watching the video, I concluded that it is most probably Fr. Uzhunnalil in the video, however knowing him personally, I believe whatever he spoke was under duress and not of his own free will.” He further said, “Our first priority must be to save Fr. Tom’s life.”
Fr. Matthew Valarkote SDB, from the Bangalore Province, the mother province of Fr. Uzhunnalil, also his close friend and fellow conferer, told Indian Currents that although there are some discrepancies in the video, there is also enough evidence that the person is Fr. Uzhunnalil. He said, “In the video Fr. Tom identifies himself as Fr. Tommy George when all of us know him as Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil; although he doesn’t look 100% like him, we can understand that given the circumstance of his captivity, there could be drastic physical changes; for example, his beard has grown longer than what we saw in the last video.”
Analyzing certain aspects of the video, Fr. Valarkote said, “The ambience surrounding the video is similar to the first video including the long sleeve jumper that he is wearing.”
Another member of the Salesian Society who did not want to be unidentified said, “Having known Fr. Uzhunnalil for many years, I know that whatever he spoke is either what he was tutored to speak or brainwashed by his captors because we all know the efforts put in by Bishop Paul Hinder, the Government of India, and the plea by the Holy Father.”
He also said, “Fr. Uzhunnalil is like a captain of a ship, who would not abandon the ship till all got out, in the same way he never abandoned the mission in Yemen, despite the dangers and hardships he faced, and unfortunately, he was taken captive.”
In the video Fr. Uzhunnalil sounds depressed because he has been told that no efforts have been made to save him. He is heard saying in the video: “If I were a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously. I am from India. I am perhaps not considered as of much value.” He also pleads: “Dear Holy Father, as a father please take care of my life. I am very much depressed. My health is deteriorating". He also claims that his captors have made many contacts with Bishop Paul Hinder, and the Government of India but nothing seems to have been done.
It is a known fact that Fr. Tom knows very well the number of Indian priests working in the Vicariate of Southern Arabia; hence an Indian priest is always respected and valuable in this region; therefore it is evident that he has been brainwashed or forcibly tutored to speak against Pope Francis, Bishop Paul Hinder and other authorities.
Derek Saldanha said, “He doesn’t have the freedom to express himself fully, because there maybe guns pointed at him. Hence, we have to look at those statements in that context, but given this new video, the government must boost their negotiations.”
Through different channels, Bishop Paul Hinder and his team continue to meticulously work towards the release of Fr. Uzhunnanlil, although the details cannot be disclosed at this stage.
After the broadcast of the video, the Government of India has pushed the issue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to connect with certain people in Yemen to secure Fr. Uzhunnalil’s release.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said, “It takes more time to secure releases of people who are kidnapped, and we are working hard to trace the priest.”
In a tweet on December 26, Ms Swaraj also said, "I have seen the video from Father Tom. He is an Indian citizen and the life of every Indian is most precious for us... we will spare no effort to secure Father Tom's release from captivity."
It is notable that Ms. Swaraj had worked towards the release of Fr. Alexis Prem Kumar, a Jesuit, who was in captivity for eight months with the Taliban. Additionally, Judith D’souza, an aid worker in Afghanistan, was also rescued from kidnappers.
The problem is that Yemen is a lawless nation, hence there is no government, and it is very difficult to hold fruitful negotiations. Since no group has taken responsibility, the government and the Church are being led “blindfolded” through the negotiations.
Although the video does not suggest the timing of its recording, but it has renewed hopes in the global Catholic community who have fervently been praying and fasting for Fr. Uzhunnalil’s life and release. It is also possible that certain alleged statements made by Fr. Uzhunnalil in the video are to create confusion among the faithful and portray a negative image about the Church and the Government authorities.
Although the motive for the kidnapping is unknown, an expert in anti-terrorism studies, who does not want to be identified, has observed that in normal circumstances, if the kidnappers had a religious reason, Fr. Uzhunnalil would have been martyred long ago, and it would have been broadcast. If he is alive as this video suggests, then the kidnapping is not for religious reasons, but for ransom.
The story of Fr. Uzhunnalil’s kidnapping has united people of different faiths around the world as they continue to pray and fast for his release. Afzal Sheikh said, “I am a Muslim and I understand the humanitarian work carried out by Fr. Uzhunnalil in Yemen, and do hope and pray for his release.” He further said, “I do hope that his captors understand that he is a poor man and has no ulterior motives in Yemen, and has been working for the welfare of humanity in the war-torn country, hence releasing him would be the greatest gesture of humanity”.
Amit Dalal said, “I have known the great works of the Catholic Church around the world, and they are known to stand in the face of danger, the same way Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil took care of the mission surrounded by mindless violence; I join in solidarity with the Catholic community to pray and appeal for the safe and speedy release of father.”(Published on 02nd January 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 1)#