“I wasn’t mistreated. Jesus was with me. I prayed for the Pope and for my kidnappers,” said Father Thomas Uzhunnalil, who added that he celebrated Mass spiritually by heart, without the Eucharistic species, during a press conference in Rome on Saturday morning, September 16, 2017 at the Salesian House where he is resting since his arrival in Rome.
Father Thomas, native of Kerala, India, was kidnapped at Aden in Yemen on March 4, 2016, during a blitz in the course of which four Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s Sisters) were killed as well as 12 others, members of the staff of a home for guests and for elderly and handicapped, whom they looked after.
August 18 marked the second anniversary of Father Tom’s detention. He was released on September 12 thanks to the intervention of the Sultan of Oman, and of Indian and Vatican diplomacy. However, the Major Rector of the Salesians, Father Angel Fernandez Artime, who was present at the press conference, explained: “We don’t know who freed him. We learned of his liberation in a call from an airplane of the Sultanate, which brought him to Fiumicino, adding: “It’s certain that the liberation and the transfer were effected through a humanitarian worker, in communication and connection with the Sultanate of Oman.”
The presence of Sisters of Mother Teresa at the press conference moved Father Tom, rendering him at first unable to speak. Then he greeted them and thanked them.
Father Tom went on to say: “I wasn’t mistreated, Jesus was with me. They never threatened me with a weapon. Yes, I’m diabetic. I didn’t know where I was or who my kidnappers were.”
“They told me they had doctors who would take care of me,” he added. During his captivity Father Tom slept “in a room with a bed.”
They asked him who would be interested in him: his Bishop, the Pope, or someone else? But he didn’t know the real reason for the kidnapping. “I don’t know, perhaps to try to get some money. There are many groups that do things of this sort for money, or because I’m Indian, I really don’t know,” he said.
They also changed his place of detention: three different places that he is unable to identify.
A video published by his kidnappers shows them about to mistreat him, however, they had alerted him that they wouldn’t harm him, but that it was a staging to attract attention to his fate. And he reiterated: “I was not mistreated.”
They gave him the medication he needed, something difficult given the situation of war in Yemen, he said, adding that once a doctor came to care for the hypertension he was suffering caused by his diabetes.
As regards his spiritual life, Father Tom said he celebrated Mass in his room “spiritually without bread or wine” and that he prayed “for the Pope, the Bishops, the priests, the deceased missionaries” and also for his kidnappers.
“I thought of the five Sisters who were killed and I prayed for them, but then I heard from the kidnappers that one of them was spared.”
And to give himself courage, he repeated to himself the words of an English song: “One day at a time, give me the grace to live this day.”
“I am as I am today because God took care of me. In the name of God I thank all those who didn’t harm me during my detention and I think that was due to all those who prayed for me.” He clarified that his kidnappers didn’t try to convert him to Islam.
Father Tom is also and electronics technician: he occupied his time trying to connect circuits or counting the seconds and the days, adding: “thanks to 230 tablets I had with me, I was able to count the passing days.”
On the last day of his captivity, his kidnappers told him he would be released and gave him clothes. Three or four hours later, they came by car on a paved road. They waited a long time and then returned. The next day they came back to the same place, and handed him over to others who told him he was free, explained Father Tom to the press.
They took him by car to the desert and they arrived in Oman and, after checking him, he was taken by helicopter to a base where he left by plane.
For his immediate future, he expressed the desire to meet with the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity. And then, he said, he was abandoned to the will of God. “I am a priest and my future life is at God’s disposition.”
Pope Francis received Father Tom at the Vatican last Wednesday, September 13, the day after his release.
Translation by Virginia M. Forrester