After rampant rumors spread of the crucifixion of kidnapped priest Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian government official told the nation's bishops on Saturday that the priest is alive and that they are working on ensuring his safe and quick return.
Fr. Uzhunnalil, an Indian national, was abducted last month when four gunmen attacked a Missionaries of Charity-run retirement home in Aden, Yemen, killing 16 people, including four Missionary of Charity sisters. The attacks are thought to have been perpetrated by Islamist terrorists, though no group has claimed responsibility for the incident. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have a presence in the area.
During Holy Week, several blogs and media outlets reported that Fr. Tom was crucified by Islamic State militants on Good Friday. However, there has been no confirmation of the event by friends, family, or Fr. Uzhunnalil’s Salesian community, and the bishop of the local Church dismissed the rumors.
On March 28, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) wrote a letter to India’s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, urging greater efforts in locating the priest and for further information to clarify his whereabouts and to quell the rumors of crucifixion. A CBCI delegation then met with Swaraj at her office Saturday.
“Ms. Sushma Swaraj has categorically assured the delegation that Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil is safe and that the Government is adopting all possible means for the quick and safe release of Fr. Tom,” the bishops said in an April 2 statement after the meeting.
“The Honorable Minister also said that the wild rumors being spread about any harm done to Fr. Tom, are totally baseless.”
While Swaraj assured the bishops that every effort is being made to bring the priest back safely, the specifics of the ongoing investigation and negotiations could not be revealed so as to protect the life of Fr. Tom.
Rumors of the possibility of a Good Friday crucifixion for Fr. Tom emerged on March 20, when the Franciscan Sisters of Siessen, a religious group based in South Africa, shared a post on Facebook saying they’d received information that the priest was being tortured after his capture and that he would be crucified on Good Friday. The Sisters have since deleted the post, but it had already been shared by more than 100,000 people.
The rumors continued when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna allegedly confirmed the crucifixion during Easter Vigil services, causing Austrian and Polish media sources to believe the crucifixion had taken place.
Afterwards, Bishop Paul Hinder of Southern Arabia (whose apostolic vicariate serves Catholics in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen) told CNA that Cardinal Schönborn’s statement was based on an incorrect statement from Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore. Cardinal Schonborn has since corrected the alleged statement.
At the end of their statement on Saturday, the Indian bishops said they “expressed the sincere gratitude of the whole Church in India for the various steps taken by the Government of India and, in particular, the Hon’ble Minister for External Affairs, to trace and rescue Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil from the abductors.”