Kerala priest Tom Uzhunnalil rescued from Islamic State captivity: Kin flock into Ramapuram, await reunion

Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a Vatican priest from Kerala, who was abducted by Islamic State militants from an old age home run by Missionaries of Charity at Aden in strife-torn Yemen more than 18 months ago, has been released.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj confirmed the news via her Twitter handle at 3.45 pm on Tuesday. "I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued," the message said.

Details of the release are not immediately available, however, Oman Observer, a leading English daily based in Muscat, said that the Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said had secured the priest’s release from Islamic State in coordination with the Yemeni parties. The newspaper also released an image of the rescued priest.

The report said that Tom is in Muscat and will soon return to his home in Kerala. "Tom Uzhunnalil, a Vatican priest, expressed thanks to God Almighty and appreciation to Sultan Qaboos. He also thanked his brothers and sisters and all relatives and friends who called on God for safety and release,” the report said.

Shajan Uzhunnalil, a cousin of the abducted priest at Pala in Kottayam district, said that the family was relieved to hear the news. The family, however, has not been able to establish any communication with him so far, Shajan told Firstpost.

"We have heard that Tom has reached Muscat safely and would return to Kerala in a day or two. We could not confirm this. We are trying to contact him through our acquaintances in Muscat," Shajan said.

"We are told that the health condition of the priest is bad and the Oman government was giving him proper medical care. He may come only after an improvement in his health,” Shajan said.

He said that the release of the priest, who belongs to Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB), Bengaluru, from the captivity of terrorists was a result of the sustained efforts of many, including the government and the church, and the prayers from all sections of people in the country. Shajan said that the family is looking forward to a reunion with the priest.

Following the media reports, the relatives of the priest from different parts of the state have started gathering at his home at Ramapuram in Pala. Shajan said that a large stream of people from near and far are also flowing to Ramapuram.

Armed men had stormed the old age home where Tom was serving on 4 March 2016. He was taken away after the terrorists gunned down 16 people, including four Catholic nuns serving the home. One of the nuns was also from India.

The priest had communicated to the church and the government through videos released on social networking sites. In one video, he even blamed the government and the church for their failure to save his life.

The priest had raised concern about his deteriorating health in the last video. He looked more tired and weak compared to the video released earlier in December 2016.

Following this, the church in Kerala and the state government had mounted pressure on the Narendra Modi government for securing his release. Vatican also intervened in the matter after Tom made a direct appeal to Pope Francis.

Several delegations of the church met Modi and Swaraj. Following this, the government had set up a three-member committee to help secure the priest’s release.

Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, head of Syro-Malabar Church, one of the three Catholic rites in the state, said that Pope Francis had shown personal interest in the matter and had directed actions to save the priest’s life. He also appreciated the efforts made by the Government of India.

The Cardinal, who met the prime minister twice regarding the priest’s release, was not ready to blame the government and the Vatican as the situation in Yemen was volatile and India had no full-fledged diplomatic mission there.

"What we can do at this juncture is to pray to the God to give strength to the priest to face the situation," he added.

The state BJP considers the release of Tom as yet another feather in the cap of the prime minister. Modi himself had recalled the efforts he made in evacuating the nurses trapped in conflict areas in the Middle East as well as the release of aid worker Judith D’Souza and Father Alexis Prem Kumar from Afghanistan.

D’Souza was released in July more than a month after she was kidnapped in Kabul.

The release of Jesuit priest Kumar from the captivity of Taliban in February 2015 is also considered as a diplomatic success. The priest, who hails from Tamil Nadu, was abducted by the Taliban in Herat, Afghanistan, in June 2014.

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Updated Date: Sep 13, 2017 09:11:39 IST