An Indian Catholic priest who was abducted by Islamic State (IS) in Yemen more than 18 months ago has been rescued, a top official said Tuesday.
Priest Tom Uzhunnalil, a native of south India’s Kerala state, was kidnapped on March 4, 2016, when gunmen stormed an old-people’s home run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the coastal town of Aden. Sixteen people, including an Indian nun and three others, were killed in the attack.
“I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued,” India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said in a tweet.
Although Indian officials did not reveal the details, Oman’s state-run news agency reported that Omani ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said was instrumental in securing the priest’s release in coordination with Yemeni parties.
Uzhunnalil, 57, is under medical observation in Muscat, the Omani capital, and will return to his home in Kerala once he is fit to travel, the Oman News Agency said in a statement.
“Tom Uzhunnalil, a Vatican priest, expressed thanks to God Almighty and appreciation to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos. He also thanked his brothers and sisters and all relatives and friends who called on God for [his] safety and release,” it said.
As news of Uzhunnalil’s freedom broke, thousands of people from across the state started gathering outside the priest’s home in Kottayam district’s Pala village, about 161 km (100 miles) from state capital Thiruvananthapuram, relatives said.
“There are nearly 10,000 people outside Tom’s house right now cheering his release. The bishop of our region will also come down tomorrow. We are holding a special prayer meeting which will continue until tomorrow,” Joseph Mathew, Uzhunnalil’s cousin, told BenarNews in a phone conversation from the Pala village.
Father Anil D’Sa, spokesman for the Salesians’ Bangalore province, the order to which Uzhunnalil belongs, described his colleague’s release as a moment to rejoice.
“It is really a great moment, a great joy to know that Father Tom has been released after a year and a half in captivity. We do believe that he has survived because of the prayers of millions of people across the world,” he told BenarNews.
Uzhunnalil’s captors apparently released a video in December 2016, in which the priest was seen pleading to the Indian government for help and blaming the church for ignoring his plight because he was an Indian national.
“It was a very painful period for us. But I am glad it is finally over. We are so relieved,” Uzhunnalil’s cousin Shajan Thomas told BenarNews.
“We are thankful to people of all religions and communities who prayed for his release. We are also thankful to the Indian government for all its efforts,” he added.