Pope Francis thanks Oman, welcomes Father Tom home
September 14, 2017 | 1:44 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan, [email protected]
Father Tom Uzhunnalil with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Photo: Supplied

Muscat: Pope Francis has thanked the government of Oman for the timely intervention in the rescue of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who spent 18 months in captivity in Yemen.

A Royal Air Force of Oman aircraft was scrambled to the port city of Aden, where Uzhunnalil had worked and was held, and he arrived in the Omani capital, Muscat, soon after his release on Tuesday, the 12th of September.

"The Holy See fervently thanks all those who worked for his release, and especially His Majesty the Sultan of Oman and the competent authorities of the Sultanate," read a statement from the Holy See's Press Office, after the news of the priest's release.

After personally meeting Pope Francis on arrival in Rome, Fr. Uzhunnalil is expected to stay in the Vatican City for a few days before going home to his family in India.

A native of the Indian state of Kerala, Fr. Uzhunnalil belonged to the Bangalore Salesian province, and had been working as a Vatican member at an old age care home set up in Aden by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.

He had been abducted by gunmen who stormed the facility on the 4th of March, 2016, taking him hostage and killing 16 other residents of the home, including four sisters, who served the elderly at the home, where he served as chaplain. About 80 residents lived in the care home a the time of the attack.

Almost immediately after news of the attack and Fr. Uzhunnalil's abduction made news around the world, Pope Francis appealed for the release of the priest, mentioning his name during his Easter sermons on April 4th, 2016.

"I renew my appeal for the release of all persons seized in areas of armed conflict," he'd said at the time. "In particular, I desire to remember the Salesian priest, Tom Uzhunnalil, kidnapped at Aden in Yemen this past March 4th."

Father Uzhunnalil's release was met with gratitude and relief, not just by himself, but also by senior members in the religious and political circles.

"In response to the Royal Orders of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said and as per a request from the Vatican to assist in the rescuing of a Vatican employee, the authorities concerned in Oman, in coordination with the Yemeni authorities, have managed to find a Vatican government employee," said Oman's government in a statement.

India's ambassador to Oman Indra Mani Pandey was also pleased to see Uzhunnalil freed. "We are aware that he has been freed, and are happy that he is now out of danger," said Pandey.

"We would not like to share any more details about this at this time, and will wait for the Government of India to make a statement."

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also expressed relief on his release, saying, "I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued."

Kerala's Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, added, "The news of the release of Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, who was in the captivity of terrorists, is heartening. Wishing him well."

The Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which oversees the welfare and development of churches in the UAE, Oman and Yemen, was also relieved to see father Tom out of danger.

"We gratefully thank all those who prayed for the safe release of Fr. Uzhunnalil. More details are awaited and will be released when available," they said in a statement. "Thank the Lord and all those who worked on this."

In May, a video of the Indian priest was posted online and he was seen in poor health, calling for help.

"They are treating me well to the extent they are able," the white-bearded Uzhunnalil said, speaking slowly in English. "My health condition is deteriorating quickly and I require hospitalisation as early as possible," he added in the recording.

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