Vatican City, Jul 20, 2016 / 06:49 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After a photo supposedly showing Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen in March, emerged on social media, sources close to the priest say there are strong reasons to doubt the image's authenticity.
“I have checked with a confrere with (the) Yemen experience and very close to Fr. Tom who shares my doubts about the authenticity of the photo,” a credible source close to the situation but who preferred to remain anonymous told CNA July 20.
“We simply do not have any verified news about (it), although I am convinced that Fr. Tom is alive.”
The comments come after a photo portraying an unshaven, tired-looking Indian man was published to Facebook, claiming that it was Fr. Tom and that an “entreaty,” or “plea” would be uploaded soon, according to Indian news agency The News Minute.
The agency reports that while this is the first such photo has been published and while it isn't clear who posted it, a relative of Fr Tom’s, Augustine, said many within the family have studied the photo, and believe it to be authentic.
However, CNA’s source said that since Fr Tom’s disappearance his Facebook account “has been hacked, most probably by the kidnappers.”
“It is now used to send such messages in order to make pressure,” the source said, voicing their belief that while the photo might not be authentic, they are confident Fr. Tom is alive. Fr. Uzhunnalil, an Indian national, was abducted March 4 when four gunmen attacked a Missionaries of Charity-run retirement home in Aden, Yemen, killing 16 people, including four Missionary of Charity sisters.
During Holy Week, unsubstantiated rumors spread on social media that ISIS had captured Fr. Tom and were planning his torture and crucifixion on Good Friday, however, they were largely based on inaccurate information.
On March 28, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) wrote a letter to Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, urging the Indian government to take greater efforts in locating the priest and for further information to clarify his whereabouts and to quell the rumors of crucifixion.
The minister then met with the CBCI and announced that the rumors of crucifixion were “baseless,” that Fr. Tom was still alive and that the government was “adopting all possible means” for the quick and safe release of Fr. Tom. In May she again voiced her confidence that Fr. Tom is “safe and that the "last efforts (are being made to) ensure his release.”
According to The News Minute, Augustine said the Indian government has found it difficult to hold talks, and is unsure who to speak with since Yemen has no stable government. He said that he didn't think Fr Tom was taken by the Islamic State, but likely a smaller group. The details, however, remain unclear.