By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
NEW DELHI, INDIA (ANS, Jan.9, 2017) — India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under fire from his political opponents for his failure to secure the release of an Indian Catholic priest kidnapped ten months ago in Yemen by Islamic extremists.
Now, World Watch Monitor (www.worldwatchmonitor.org) reports that Modi’s Deputy Foreign Minister, M. J. Akbar, has said the priest went to Yemen “ignoring the central government’s orders not to go,” even though he’d lived and worked in the country for 14 years.
A five-minute video message was published on YouTube on December 24 showing the priest, Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, gasping for breath and appearing to read from a script. In it he said: “If I were a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously. I am from India. I am perhaps not considered as of much value.” He claimed his captors have made many contacts with Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Modi to no avail, and criticized the Catholic Church for not having negotiated his release.
World Watch Monitor said Fr. Uzhunnalil, from the Salesian Order, was abducted on March 4, 2016 from a home for the elderly in the port city of Aden run by the Missionaries of Charity. Sixteen people including four nuns were murdered in the attack. It is not known when the video was recorded or where he has been held.
The day after the video emerged, the Catholic Bishop of the Arabia region that includes Yemen issued a statement saying: “Since the day of the abduction of Fr. Tom, the Church has made countless appeals from the highest levels to secure his release as well as made concrete efforts by way of working in close collaboration with both international and local diplomatic channels.”
World Watch Monitor said the statement, from Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia, added that Bishop Hinder “is in touch with the different channels who are working and are leading the dialogues to secure a safe release. More details cannot be disclosed at this stage.”
The World Watch Monitor report says that in the priest’s home state of Kerala, the ruling Communist party pledged that its members would send Modi 50,000 postcards demanding the Government secure his release.
Meanwhile, the opposition Congress party launched a petition on New Year’s Day, also calling for the Government to intervene. “They are planning to collect thousands of signatures to the memorandum that will be presented to the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee,” V. A. Thomas, the priest’s cousin, told World Watch Monitor on January 4. He added that civil society and political parties are organizing rallies in the Keralan town of Ramapuram this week to put pressure on the government.
Thomas told World Watch Monitor today ( Jan. 9) that Fr. Tom had gone to Abu Dhabi, where he’d met his Bishop before he moved on to Yemen.
“The government is trying defend itself while it is saying also that it is doing its best. The [Deputy Foreign] Minister’s statement is confusing to us,” Thomas added.
World Watch Monitor went on to report that after the video appeal made national news headlines, India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj reiterated that the Government was doing its best to secure the priest’s release. He tweeted “I have seen the video from Father Tom. He is an Indian citizen and the life of every Indian is most precious.”
In addition, on December 27 the federal minister for minority affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, visited Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church to which Fr Uzhunnalil belongs, and assured him that the Government was “doing everything possible.”
World Watch Monitor said the following day the Times of India published a story suggesting the priest was partly to blame for his kidnap because he returned to Yemen without government permission, and reported him “visiting” the area rather than pointing out that he had worked there for 14 years.
Another of the priest’s cousins, O. S. Mathew, criticized the paper for publishing the story, the news agency reported.
Supporters of the priest were further dismayed when the federal home minister appeared not to know about the priest’s situation. The minister, Rajnath Singh, on a visit to a popular Hindu temple in the Keralan town of Guruvayoor on December 28 was asked by journalists whether the Government was doing enough to secure the priest’s release. He replied: “Who is Uzhunnalil?”
V. V. Augustine, president of Kerala Catholic Congress that is spearheading the campaign for Fr. Uzhunnalil’s release, described Singh’s reaction as “embarrassing to [the] heart,” and activist John Dayal, Secretary-General of the All India Christian Council, said he was “aghast” that the number two in Prime Minister Modi’s Government was unaware of an issue the Christian community “has been repeatedly putting before the Government.”
World Watch Monitor went on to explain that three weeks after his abduction, Fr Uzhunnalil returned to the headlines when the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönnborn mistakenly repeated a claim that members of ISIS had crucified him on Good Friday. A spokesman later said he could not confirm the validity of the claim, which had been made on some Arabic news websites.
Photo captions: 1) Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, Archdiocese of Bombay. 2) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 3) Michael Ireland
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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