The Kerala-born priest served as chaplain to the Sisters of Mother Teresa, four of whom were killed in their convent. He was in mission to Yemen for four years. His uncle Matthew, a Salesian as well, founded the mission. Fr Tom chose to stay in the country, even though he had the opportunity to leave. Salesians have been present in Yemen since 1987 to provide outreach for the few local Catholics and the many migrant workers.
Rome (AsiaNews) – After nearly a week, there is still no news about the fate of Fr Tom Uzhunnalil (pictured). The Salesian priest was abducted by probable terrorists after the massacre of four sisters of Mother Teresa and 12 other people in Aden on 4 March.
Fr Francesco Cereda, Vicar of the Rector Major, spoke to AsiaNews about what is being done by the authorities of India and the clergyman’s home State of Kerala, as well as the Vatican, the Vicar of southern Arabia and the Indian Bishops' Conference to gather information and open negotiations with the kidnappers.
At the same time, Fr Cereda mentioned the flow of prayers from the Salesian community at large, because "everything is possible with God."
The Vicar of the Rector Major said that Fr Tom – who had to endure some violence recently (his church was torched) – chose to stay in the war-torn country to support the Missionaries of Charity and Catholic believers present in Yemen, mostly migrant workers from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.
Fr. Tom, 56, was born in Ramapuram, near Pala (Kottayam, Kerala) into a deeply Catholic family. His uncle Matthew, who passed away last year, also a Salesian, is the founder of the mission in Yemen. Fr Tom has been in Yemen for the past four years.
Here is the interview the Vicar of the Rector Major gave us. (BC)
Fr Cereda, do you have any news about Fr Tom Uzhunnalil and his possible release?
So far, we have no news about Fr Tom’s fate. The Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, said that the government will do everything in its power to find Fr Tom, secure his release, and bring him back safe and sound.
Even the Chief Minister of the State of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, has offered every possible assistance. He is in frequent contact with the central government and the provincial of Bangalore’s Salesian community, which is Fr Tom’s own province. This is due to the fact that Fr Tom hails from Kerala.
The Indian Bishops' Conference, and Mgr Paul Hinder, the apostolic vicar of southern Arabia, are doing everything possible. They are in contact with the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Nunciature in Kuwait, and the government of the United Arab Emirates.
In addition to keeping all channels for possible negotiations open, there is also a movement of prayer among Salesians, the people of Aden, and all of you who show us solidarity. Our action is backed by the effectiveness of prayer because "everything is possible with God."
What do the Salesians do in Yemen?
We have been in that country since 1987. We have been present to provide sacramental and spiritual outreach to a large number of Catholic immigrants from India, the Philippines, and elsewhere who work in hospitals, hospices, and businesses.
In Sana'a, the capital, the Salesians also offer pastoral services to Catholic diplomats. We are the only priests in Yemen and have become a great support for the Missionary Sisters of Charity, who take care of the sick, senior citizens, and needy children in the cities of Sana'a, Aden, Al Hudaydah and Taiz.
The country's situation is not conducive to dialogue [with Muslims]. Thus, the Salesians stuck initially to offering their services to facilities run by nuns and to Catholic migrants, as well as to helping the locals in need. There are very few Yemeni Catholics: many have left the country or the faith.
Over the past year, the situation in Yemen has worsened because of the war. Why did you stay?
We were aware that the situation was getting worse by the day. The government of India called on its citizens to leave Yemen, closed its embassy in 2014 and brought home thousands of Indians.
The superior of the Salesian Province of Bangalore, which is entrusted with the mission in Yemen, discussed what to do with Mgr Hinder.
We understood that if everyone left, we would have been deprived of the only organised Catholic presence in Yemen. At the same time, we could not force anyone to stay. Thus, each individual was allowed to decide.
Out of five Salesians in the country, three decided to return to India. Two decided to remain to help in particular the Missionaries of Charity. The latter decided to remain, along with the few Catholics who work in their facilities.
The two priests who stayed, one of whom is Fr Tom, offered their pastoral service putting their own safety on the line, going from one community of the Sisters of Mother Teresa to the other.
What prospects do you see for the future?
Right now, we are concerned about solving the emergency situation and the fate of our brother, Fr Tom. We have not yet considered the prospects for the future.