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Salesian priest recounts his kidnapping in Yemen, imprisonment

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Catholic News Service

ROME — Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil was sitting in a room in an unknown location, one of several he had been relocated to during his 18-month imprisonment, when he received some unexpected news.

Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was released Sept. 12 after having been kidnapped 18 months ago in Yemen, kneels at the feet of Pope Francis during a Sept. 13 meeting at the Vatican. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

“Those who kept me came to where I slept (and said), ‘I bring you good news. We are sending you home. If you need to go to the bathroom, go. Take a shower, but quickly.’” Father Uzhunnalil told reporters Sept. 16 at the Salesian headquarters in Rome.

The Salesian priest from India was kidnapped March 4, 2016, from a home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. On that day, four Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack by uniformed gunmen.

Seeing a group of Missionaries of Charity sisters seated at the news conference in Rome, Father Uzhunnalil expressed his condolences. However, the memory of the four sisters’ martyrdom still proved too difficult to bear.

Silence filled the room as the Salesian priest covered his eyes, tears streaming down his face while doing his utmost to hold back emotions that he thought he could contain.

“I thank God Almighty for this day, for keeping me safe, healthy, clear minded; my emotions were in control until now,” he said after regaining his composure. 

“I don’t want to speak too much about the sisters because I get too emotional,” he said.

Although reports following his kidnapping suggested the attack was carried out by the so-called Islamic State, Father Uzhunnalil said his captors never identified themselves.

Knowing very little Arabic, Father Uzhunnalil said he spoke to the militants with the few words he knew: “Ana hindiin” (“I am Indian”). To this day, the Indian priest still wonders why he was the only one spared in the slaughter.

“Why they did not kill me, why they didn’t tie my hands, I don’t know,” he said. “Perhaps they wanted some ransom or whatever it is. I only believe that maybe God had put that into their heads when I said, ‘I am Indian,’ and they made me sit there while they killed the others, the sisters.”

After leaving him in the trunk of the car, the militants ransacked the chapel taking the tabernacle, wrapping it with the altar linen and placing it near the kidnapped priest. With his hands unbound, Father Uzhunnalil carefully moved the linen and found “four or five small hosts,” which he kept to celebrate the Eucharist the first few days of his capture.

After his short supply ran out, he said, he continued reciting the Mass prayers when alone despite not having bread and wine.

“I peacefully was able to say my Eucharist all from memory, although bread and wine wasn’t available. But I prayed to God to give me those items spiritually,” Father Uzhunnalil said.

He spent most of his days praying for the pope, his bishop, his Salesian brothers, and “certainly those sisters, all those persons whom God had called” on the day of his abduction.

Father Uzhunnalil said he found consolation in the words of a hymn, “One day at a time, sweet Jesus.”

“Just give me the strength to do every day what I have to do. Yesterday’s gone, sweet Jesus, and tomorrow may never be mine. Lord, help me today, show me the way, one day at a time,” he would sing to himself in the solitude of his room.

On Sept. 11, Father Uzhunnalil was given the news of his liberation. After traveling for hours blindfolded, the priest along with two of his captors waited in the car.

Several hours later, his captors told him “some arrangements weren’t done” and they headed back.

Not understanding the church’s teaching on the Holy Trinity and the “unity of God in three persons,” Father Uzhunnalil recalled, one of his captors said, “You might have prayed to the third God, now you must pray to the second God so tomorrow can go well.”

Returning to his cell, he slept briefly when he was rustled out of bed in the middle of the night Sept. 12 and taken on the same long ride, his head once again covered. He was then moved to another vehicle where a person pulled up his picture on a cell phone and asked the priest, “Is this you?”

After confirming his identity, the driver drove for more than a day through the desert and told him: “Now you are free, now you are safe.”

Father Uzhunnalil was then taken to the Omani capital of Moscat where he received medical treatment, fresh clothes, and a shaving kit.

While he knows few details about arrangements for his release, Father Uzhunnalil expressed his gratitude to those who helped secure his liberation, including Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman, the government authorities of India, and the Vatican, including Pope Francis whom he met the day after his release.

As Pope Francis entered the room Sept. 13, the Salesian knelt before him and kissed his feet. Visibly moved by the gesture, the pope helped him up and kissed his hands.

Before blessing Father Uzhunnalil, the pope embraced him and said he would continue to pray for him as he had done during his imprisonment.

“In that meeting, the pope kissed my hand. I never deserved it,” he said. “I’m only grateful to God for his blessings, I’m sure he prayed much for me.”

Even his captors, Father Uzhunnalil said, knew of the pope’s efforts and inadvertently gave him a reason to hope.

“One of the captors told me, ‘The pope has said you will be freed soon but nothing is happening still.’ From that, I knew that the whole world was there, the whole church was there, the world was worried for me. So, I am grateful,” he said.

 

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Mexican priest kidnapped, found alive with signs of torture

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Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY — An outspoken priest who had been reported missing in the state of Veracruz was found alive, but with signs of torture.

Father Jose Luis Sanchez Ruiz, pastor of Twelve Apostles parish in Catemaco, a town known for witchcraft, some 340 miles southeast of Mexico City, was reported missing Nov. 11, sparking unrest and the ransacking and burning of the city hall by residents impatient with the police response.

Police officers guard the municipal building in Catemaco, Mexico, Nov. 14  after it was set on fire following the disappearance of Father Jose Luis Sanchez Ruiz, pastor of Twelve Apostles parish. The outspoken priest, who had been reported missing in the state of Veracruz, was found alive, but with signs of torture. (CNS photo/Oscar Martinez, Reuters)

Police officers guard the municipal building in Catemaco, Mexico, Nov. 14 after it was set on fire following the disappearance of Father Jose Luis Sanchez Ruiz, pastor of Twelve Apostles parish. The outspoken priest, who had been reported missing in the state of Veracruz, was found alive, but with signs of torture. (CNS photo/Oscar Martinez, Reuters)

A statement from the Diocese of San Andres Tuxtla said Father Sanchez was found “abandoned” Nov. 13 “with notable signs of torture.”

Father Aaron Reyes Natividad, diocesan spokesman, told local media that Father Sanchez had received threats via WhatsApp and Facebook, while the doors to the church also appear to have been opened with force. He denounced crime and corruption in Veracruz, where a former governor is currently on the lam for funneling millions of dollars of state money into shell companies, and also rallied residents against high electric bills.

“He was nervous, but nothing stopped him,” Father Reyes told Veracruz news organization blog.expediente.mx.

“We think that a lot of what happened has to do with what the padre said in his sermons,” Father Reyes said. “He gave the names of those responsible for insecurity, stealing from the community and generating poverty.”

The abduction and torture of Father Sanchez marked another case of clergy coming under attack in Mexico, where at least 15 priests have been murdered in the past four years, according to the Centro Catolico Multimedial. Many of the investigations in the killings have left church officials unhappy, but were reflective of a country in which nearly 94 percent of crimes go unreported or uninvestigated, according to a survey by the state statistics service.

In Veracruz, which hugs the country’s Gulf Coast, Fathers Alejo Jimenez and Jose Juarez were kidnapped and killed in September in the city of Poza Rica. Authorities said the priests had been drinking with their attackers prior to falling victim, a version rejected by church officials.

Another priest, Father Jose Alfredo Lopez Guillen, was kidnapped and killed in the western state of Michoacan less than a week later. The Michoacan government initially released video footage purportedly showing him in a hotel with a teenage boy, but the family and church officials disputed the claims, forcing a retraction.

Church officials are at a loss to explain the attacks against them, though nearly 150,000 people have died since the country started cracking down on drug cartels and organized crime a decade ago. Priests in rough areas, such as Veracruz, have fallen victim to crimes, and it’s thought the motives for some of the murders include the nonpayment of extortion, robbery and pastors not allowing those in the drug trade to serve as godparents in baptisms.

“The aggressors have lost their respect for God and lost respect for priests, too,” said Father Alejandro Solalinde, an activist priest in southern Mexico on issues of migration and the target of threats from organized crime.

“This priest (in Veracruz) will not return the same,” Father Solalinde said. “He’s going to live in fear, going to live with the effects of this trauma.”

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Two parish priests kidnapped, murdered in Poza Rica, Mexico

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Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY — Two priests were kidnapped and killed in the Mexican state of Veracruz, raising the death toll of clergy murdered in Mexico to 14 in less than four years.

Veracruz state attorney general Luis Angel Bravo Contreras told reporters Sept. 20 that the “victims and the victimizers knew each other” and added that the attack was “not a kidnapping.”

The bodies of Fathers Alejo Nabor Jimenez Juarez and Jose Alfredo Juarez de la Cruz are seen along a roadside Sept. 19 in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The priests were found murdered that day, just hours after they were kidnapped from the low-income neighborhood where they served. (CNS /EPA)

The bodies of Fathers Alejo Nabor Jimenez Juarez and Jose Alfredo Juarez de la Cruz are seen along a roadside Sept. 19 in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The priests were found murdered that day, just hours after they were kidnapped from the low-income neighborhood where they served. (CNS /EPA)

“They were together, having a few drinks, the gathering broke down due to alcohol and turned violent,” he said.

Catholic officials in Veracruz rejected the explanation, calling it “an easy out” and saying it ignored the reality of a state notorious for crime and corruption.

“We are hoping for more professional and careful inquiry, because this declaration the prosecutor is giving generates more doubts than responses to the issue of the murder of these two priests,” said Father Jose Manuel Suazo Reyes, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Xalapa. “It surprises us how quickly they’ve concluded an investigation that requires more time and care.”

Father Alejo Nabor Jimenez Juarez and Father Jose Alfredo Juarez de la Cruz were dragged at gunpoint out of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Poza Rica, a Gulf Coast oil city consumed by crime in recent years, the Diocese of Papantla confirmed in a statement.

Media reported the men were found Sept. 19, one day after their abduction, along the side of a highway with their hands and feet bound. They were beaten and had gunshot wounds, according to media reports.

A driver employed by the parish also was abducted, Mexican media reported, but was found unharmed.

State officials said Sept. 20 that five men participated in the abductions and one of the suspect’s identities was known. Robbery of a church building fund was cited as a motive, Veracruz media outlet Plumas Libres reported.

“In these moments of pain, impotence and tragedy provoked by violence, we raise our prayers to the heavens for the eternal rest of our brothers and implore to the Lord the conversion of the aggressors. Of the authorities, we await the clarification of the acts and the application of those responsible,” the Mexican bishops’ conference said in a statement.

Violence has struck Veracruz clergy previously. In 2013, two priests in the Diocese of Tuxpan were murdered in their parish.

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Indian bishop kidnapped and released by attackers demanding money

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NEW DELHI — A Catholic bishop in southern India was kidnapped and assaulted by unknown attackers demanding money.

Bishop Prasad Gallela of Cuddapah was blindfolded, handcuffed and forcibly taken away while he was traveling home after celebrating Mass at Karunagiri Shrine April 25, reported ucanews.com.

Bishop Prasad Gallela of the Diocese of Cuddapah, India, Bishop Gallela was kidnapped in India and assaulted by unknown attackers demanding money. He was blindfolded, handcuffed and forcibly taken away while he was traveling home after celebrating Mass at Karunagiri Shrine April 25, reported ucanews.com. (CNS/Joe Bollig, The Leaven)

Bishop Prasad Gallela of the Diocese of Cuddapah, India, Bishop Gallela was kidnapped in India and assaulted by unknown attackers demanding money. He was blindfolded, handcuffed and forcibly taken away while he was traveling home after celebrating Mass at Karunagiri Shrine April 25, reported ucanews.com. (CNS/Joe Bollig, The Leaven)

He said unidentified kidnappers came in two vehicles and took “me to an undisclosed location.”

“They hit me and punched me, resulting in injuries all over my body. I did not resist,” Bishop Gallela told ucanews.com. “Police are trying to find those behind the incident.”

The bishop said the kidnappers kept asking him about the financial transactions of the diocese. They also demanded 5 million rupees ($75,325) and said that since “I help so many people, I should help them too,” the bishop said.

“When I asked who they were, they said they are from the police,” but he added that police did not behave that way.

Early April 26, the kidnappers released the bishop, about 55 miles away from where his diocese is based.

Archbishop Thumma Bala of Hyderabad said it was “unbelievable that such a violent atrocity is perpetrated on a high-ranking religious leader of a minority community, who is totally dedicated to the service of the needy and marginalized.”

The archbishop appealed to law enforcement authorities to investigate the case thoroughly and find the culprits.

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Nigerian church groups organize prayers for missing schoolgirls

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Catholic News Service

LAGOS, Nigeria — Religious groups in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state have organized prayer sessions and other activities to support the rescue of kidnapped schoolgirls.

But Hassanah Mohammed, a resident of the state capital, Maiduguri, told Catholic News Service that groups have been avoiding nighttime vigils for fear of additional attacks.

A woman holds a sign during a May 5 protest in Lagos, Nigeria, to demand the release of abducted high school girls. The Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abduction of 276 schoolgirls during a raid in the remote village of Chibok in April. (CNS photo/Akintunde Akinleye, Reuters)

“Chibok town and Borno state are now on the world map, and we pray that God will touch the hearts of the Boko Haram insurgents and release those innocent girls safely to their parents,’” she said May 8. She added that after about 200 villagers were killed in the state earlier in the week, groups had increased their prayers.

In an overnight attack in mid-April, armed gunmen abducted girls at Chibok Government Girls Secondary School and took them into the forest. Girls who escaped said the men identified themselves as government soldiers who had come to rescue them after gunshots were fired nearby.

By May 8, more than 250 girls remained missing; two had died of snakebites and about two dozen were sick, reported The Associated Press, which was dealing with an intermediary. AP also reported that May 5, 11 more girls, ages 12-15, were taken from other villages in Borno.

Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group with a somewhat undefined leadership and structure, took credit for the mid-April kidnapping. For years the group has attacked Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, leaving an estimated 1,500 people dead in the first three months of this year alone.

The lack of progress in rescuing the girls led to an international campaign, “Bring Back Our Girls,” as well as statements from government and church leaders.

In Maiduguri, Josephine Mohammed said most of the mothers in her religious group had been fasting from 6 a.m. to noon for the safe release of the girls.

The Ladies of St. Mulumba, a Catholic charitable group, condemned the kidnappings as “a shameful act by a shameless and a faceless group.”

The statement urged the kidnappers to pity the abducted girls, their parents and relatives.

“We are sure the insurgents will not like their own little girls, sisters, nieces and wives to be treated this way,” it said.

Some parents said they were considering transferring their children to schools in southern Nigeria, which is considered safer.

At the Vatican May 8, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said Boko Haram is known for “horrible forms of violence.”

“The denial of any kind of respect for life and for the dignity of the human person — even the most innocent, vulnerable and defenseless — calls for the strongest condemnation, arouses the most heartfelt feelings of compassion for the victims and horror for the physical and spiritual suffering and incredible humiliations inflicted on them.”

“We join the multitude of appeals for their liberation and return to normal life,” Father Lombardi said. “We pray that Nigeria, with the commitment of all who can contribute, finds a way to put an end this situation of conflict and hateful terrorism, which is a source of incalculable suffering.”

The White House announced May 7 that it had offered the Nigerian government military, law enforcement and information-sharing assistance in finding the girls and securing their release. Deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that the U.S. ambassador would meet with Nigeria’s national security adviser to coordinate assistance, which would involve the Department of Justice and the FBI providing a range of technical aid and potentially hostage negotiation.

Later the same day, in remarks to the USC Shoah Foundation dinner in Los Angeles, President Barack Obama drew comparisons between the Holocaust and “today’s headlines,” including Syria’s conflict and the kidnappings in Nigeria.

“There are some bad stories out there that are being told to children, and they’re learning to hate early. They’re learning to fear those who are not like them early,” he said.

Though “none of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust, the individuals who are the victims of such unspeakable cruelty, they make a claim on our conscience. They demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action.”

By Peter Ajayi Dada

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Five nuns kidnapped from village near Damascus

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The kidnapping of five Orthodox nuns from a Christian village near Damascus has shocked Syria’s Christian community and filled many Christians with fear, said Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria.

Speaking to Vatican Radio Dec. 3, Bishop Audo said the latest information is that the superior and four of the nuns belonging to the Orthodox Monastery of Santa Tecla in Maaloula were kidnapped during the night Dec. 1 and taken to Yabrud, a city nearby.

“We have no more information,” he said.

Most media reports on the kidnapping, including by the government’s Sana news agency, speculated the kidnapping was the work of the Al Nusra Front, which the U.S. State Department defines as a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaida. Early reports said 12 nuns were kidnapped.

Bishop Audo told Vatican Radio, “Maaloula is an important symbol not only for Christians, but also for Muslims in Syria and throughout the Middle East, because it is known that people there still speak the Aramaic dialect, the language of Christ. That is one of the reason people are so struck” by the kidnapping of the sisters and the rebels’ capturing the town in early December.

As for the motive of the kidnapping, Bishop Audo said, “the first reason is the war.”

“As Christians, as the church in Syria, we don’t want to say this is a war against Christians because we want to be a presence for reconciliation and coexistence. That is our vocation. We don’t want to create provocations with the Muslims.”

However, he said, Christians feel more threatened now because the kidnapping has brought the war “to a sacred Christian place, one where for centuries nothing like this has happened.”

Maaloula is about 35 miles north of Damascus, the capital of Syria.

 

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