India’s foreign ministry said Tuesday it was doing everything to secure the release of an Indian Catholic priest believed to be a hostage of Islamic State in Yemen, but his relatives criticized their government’s handling of the nearly 10-month-old case.
Days after Father Tom Uzhunnalil appeared in a video purportedly released on social media by his captors on Christmas Eve, in which he pleaded for help from his home government, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said Tuesday via Twitter that New Delhi had “spared no effort and will spare no effort” to win the priest’s freedom. Uzhunnalil, a native of south India’s Kerala state, was abducted on March 4 when suspected IS gunmen stormed an old-age home in Aden run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, where he volunteered.
“I have seen the video from Fr. Tom. He is an Indian citizen and the life of every Indian is most precious for us,” Swaraj said in one of her tweets.
“We got Fr. Alex Prem Kumar and Judith D’Souza released from Afghanistan,” she said, referring to two Indians who were rescued from captivity in February 2015 and July this year, respectively.
‘I am very sad’
In the video that runs just over five minutes, a heavily bearded Uzhunnalil appeals in English for Pope Francis and the Indian government to help free him from captivity.
“Several months have gone by. My captors have made many contacts with the government of India to get me released. Honorable president and prime minister, I am very sad that nothing has been done seriously in my regard. Reports have been coming that everything is being done to get me released quickly, but, in reality, nothing seems to have happened,” he said, alleging that the pontiff and the bishop of Abu Dhabi had also done “nothing” about his case.
“I am sad that this is the situation. If I was a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously by authorities, and people would have got me released,” the priest said, adding, “I am from India, and perhaps I am not considered of as much value.”
He appeared to be reading from a script, without presenting any demands from his captors.
‘Nothing has happened’
Despite assurances from Indian officials, Uzhunnalil’s relatives said they were dissatisfied with New Delhi’s efforts.
“The government has been saying this for the last 10 months, but, except for assurances, nothing concrete seems to have emerged,” Joseph Mathew, Uzhunnalil’s cousin, told BenarNews by phone from Kerala’s Kottayam district.
“We have been running from pillar to post to get him [Uzhunnalil] some help. His younger brothers have even visited Abu Dhabi to meet Bishop Paul Hindon there to get him to negotiate with the captors. But nothing has happened,” Mathew said.
Shajan Thomas, another relative, said he was shocked and angry that the Indian government had still not been able to zero in on the whereabouts of Uzhunnalil.
“We are extremely worried. In the video, he looks extremely scared and weak. The Indian government needs to get him released soon, else I fear the worst,” Thomas told BenarNews.
Vikas Swarup, the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said the government was in constant touch with authorities in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to help secure Uzhunnalil’s release.
“You are aware of the circumstances currently prevailing in Yemen where fighting is going on with no central authority in that country. With regard to the safe release of the priest, who was abducted some months ago, we have been in regular touch with countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and also the local Yemeni authorities,” Swarup said in a statement.