Father Tom Uzhunnalil, the priest who was kidnapped in 2016 and held captive for 18 months by terrorists in Yemen, said that his ability to persevere “was thanks to the prayers of everyone” who interceded for him.
“Prayer is the best thing that God has given us and can obtain everything. Surrendered to the Lord’s will, during my captivity I prayed to the Lord that they would release me soon, but I also asked him to give me the grace to complete the mission that he had planned for me,”he said.
A Salesian missionary, Uzhunnalil first garnered the world’s attention when he was kidnapped March 4, 2016, during an attack on a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen, that left 16 people dead, including four Sisters.
His international profile grew when rumours spread that he was to be crucified on Good Friday, which were later discredited. After that, numerous photos and videos were released depicting Uzhunnalil, thin and with an overgrown beard, pleading for help and for his release, saying that his health was deteriorating and he was in need of hospitalization. The government of Oman and the Holy See had worked for the priest’s release. He was freed Sept. 12, 2017.
Father Tom recalled the experience he went through in Yemen. “The churches in Yemen had been attacked and vandalized, but in the days prior to my kidnapping the situation had stabilized somewhat,” he said.
However, on the morning of March 4, 2016, when he was praying in the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity, he heard gunshots outside. He saw jihadists killing four of the sisters.
“I prayed for God’s mercy on the sisters who had died and also for those who had killed them,” he said. “They then told me to come outside and asked me if I were a Muslim. I told them no, that I was a Christian. And they put me in the back seat of the car.”
“A little later they opened the door again and threw in something metallic wrapped in some cloth. I knew that it was the tabernacle that the sisters had in the chapel,” he explained.
While Uzhunnalil said his captors did not physically harm him, he did suffer psychological torture.
“They took everything away from me, although they gave me a little water and food,” he recalled.
During that time, they changed his location five or six times, and he said that he never knew the exact location where he was being held.
In the 18 months he was held captive, Uzhunnalil relied upon prayer for perseverance.
“It was thanks to the prayers of everyone who prayed for me that I was able to endure what I was going through. It wasn’t because of my personal fortitude but because of the prayers of my brothers and sisters in the faith,” he said.
The religious also relied on personal prayer during his captivity. “Every day, I prayed the Angelus; three or four Rosaries; an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for the sisters who died; the Chaplet of Divine Mercy; I meditated on the Way of the Cross; and I celebrated Holy Mass spiritually – I didn’t have any bread or wine but I said the prayers from memory,” he said.
“I prayed for my captors and I thanked God for the seed of goodness they could have in their hearts. Thanks be to God, I don’t hold any rancour or hatred for them,” he added.
“God knew everything that was happening, because they should have killed me in the beginning, but they didn’t. They kept me alive even though I said I was a Christian. Here I am now, free, to bear witness that God is alive, that he has heard our prayers and has answered us. I have witnessed the power of prayer,” he said. After his release on September 12, 2017, he met with Pope Francis, a moment that was “tremendously emotional.”
“During the meeting with Pope Francis, I cried and I thanked him for the prayers he had prayed for me that he had asked to be prayed for me.” Father Tom encouraged all Christians who are suffering persecution today to be steadfast in prayer and in faith in God.
The priest currently lives in Bangalore, India, since Yemen is still at war. However, he assures that he is ready to go back to the country “if that’s God’s will.”