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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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Conflicts and drought mean famine looms for 20 million Africans

By

Catholic News Service

Conflict and drought are threatening more than 20 million people in four countries with the prospect of famine, and the U.N. has called this food crisis the largest humanitarian crisis since the world body was formed more than 70 years ago.

A man walks by a dead cow in Dong Boma, South Sudan, April 12. Up to 20 million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and northeast Nigeria face the prospect of famine this year. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Additional resources and funding are needed “to pull people back from the brink of famine” in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria, the U.N. Security Council said in an Aug. 9 statement that commended efforts by international donors to provide humanitarian assistance for the crises in these countries.

Catholic church officials and representatives of Catholic aid agencies spoke with Catholic News Service about the enormous efforts being channeled into meeting the needs of those most vulnerable.

Governments “are reducing aid, while needs are skyrocketing,” said Elizabeth Carosella, who works for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services in Abuja, Nigeria.

Humans cannot control the weather patterns, such as drought. But increasingly, aid officials find access to areas of need blocked by ongoing conflicts or inaccessible because of poor infrastructure.

Yemen situation ‘horrific

Jerry Farrell, country representative in South Sudan for CRS, was Save the Children’s country director in Yemen until mid-2014. He called the situation in Yemen “horrific,” a famine that is entirely man-made. Seventy percent of the country’s 14 million people need some form of humanitarian aid.

Yemen has relied entirely on imported food since 1991 and “now it is sealed off from the rest of the world,” Farrell said. Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2015, which includes a Saudi-led blockade of the country.

Yemen’s food system has collapsed, Farrell said, noting that even hospitals have been bombed, and it is “as difficult to get medical supplies into the country as it is to get food in.”

The World Health Organization reports 436,000 cases of cholera in Yemen.

Bishop Paul Hinder, who heads the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, told CNS that the blockade of Yemen hinders the reconstruction of the destroyed sanitary system.

“As long as the minimal infrastructure in many parts of the country is not functioning, we cannot expect that the cholera can be stopped” or that “the starving people” can be properly fed, Bishop Hinder said.

“Without bringing people again around the table” to agree on a cease-fire, “there will be only killing and destruction with disastrous consequences for the civilian population,” he said.

“As the church is reduced to a tiny group without any structure, little can be done from our side at present,” he said.

“As I believe in the power of the prayer, I can only ask the faithful around the world to keep in mind the suffering people in Yemen — Muslims as well as the few remaining Christians, including the Missionaries of Charity,” Bishop Hinder said.

2 million face famine in South Sudan

In South Sudan, nearly 2 million people are on the cusp of famine, Farrell said, and it is hard to get food to the hungry because the country has “virtually no infrastructure.” South Sudan, a country slightly smaller than Texas, has only 12,000 miles of road, which is “more like track than road,” said Farrell, noting that”the lack of infrastructure can’t be separated from the conflict.”

In the fertile land of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state, which has avoided the drought afflicting other parts of the country, little grows because of the war, he said. And even if the residents were still able to grow mangoes and papayas in this “breathtakingly beautiful place,” there are no roads to get any excess food to people outside, he said.

“Fresh food rots because it takes weeks to get it out of there with tracks to follow instead of roads, and one can expect frequent ambushes along the way,” Farrell said.

In distributing food airdropped by the World Food Program, CRS finds “some places very difficult to get to because of active conflict,” he said. Other places are unreachable for many months because of flooding. People often walk four or five miles to food distribution points in South Sudan, he added.

About 200,000 of the 2 million internally displaced people in South Sudan are in U.N.-run camps, Farrell said. The rest have fled into the bush or into neighboring communities, “and they all want to go home to their land.”

Farrell said the tragedy of South Sudan “tires me out more and fills me with more sorrow” than even Yemen’s situation did. In 2013, two years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan was caught up in a civil war.

“South Sudan is a new country, rich in resources, and all this suffering is preventable,” said Farrell, who is based in the capital, Juba.

“Education is what matters most for young people because they will be the new leaders,” he said. Instead, because of the conflict and violence, all efforts need to be directed into emergency feeding programs, “while 75 percent of women in the country cannot read or write,” he said.

Maryknoll Father John Barth, who is based in Eastern Equatoria state, told CNS South Sudanese “are giving up hope and moving to the camps in northern Uganda by the thousands; I see them along the road when I drive back and forth across the border.”

Uganda is hosting about 1 million refugees from South Sudan. They move because “they have no food,” Father Barth said.

Teachers and others with government jobs have not been paid their monthly salaries in five months, and “even if they had been paid it would be the equivalent of about $6, because the 500 percent inflation has ruined the value of the South Sudanese pound,” Father Barth said.

In Nigeria, 5 million need emergency food aid

In northeastern Nigeria, the effects of violent conflict as well as changing weather patterns have exacerbated poverty and led to 5 million people in need of emergency food aid, Carosella told CNS, noting that deaths from famine-related causes have already occurred in Borno state. Since 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million forced to flee their homes by the Boko Haram insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

Carosella said while the severity of the region’s hunger crisis is caused by conflict, the shorter rainy season of recent years has dramatically reduced harvests, and much of Lake Chad has dried up, partly because of shifting climate patterns.

Many of those forced to flee the violence have sought refuge among communities in remote rural areas, she said, noting that these communities are themselves among the most vulnerable in the region and depend on humanitarian aid to survive. Remote rural communities hosting people displaced by Boko Haram attacks have been “immensely generous despite their own poverty,” she said.

Carosella said Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, “used to be a trade hub, but its markets have been destroyed” by the Boko Haram attacks.

“People have lost their livelihoods and now can’t afford food and have no access to even basic services,” she said.

Even where food can be found, it is unaffordable for most people, she said.

Sometimes a very malnourished woman will sell part of her food ration for cash that will enable her to transport a sick child to a clinic, Carosella said.

“Having to make that choice is something no one should have to face,” she said.

She told of a 24-year-old woman she met at a hospital in Maiduguri.

“She fled her village with her four children, all under 5 years old, after seeing her husband and parents slaughtered” in an attack by Boko insurgents, Carosella said.

One of her children died in the 32 days it took her to walk to the hospital, where her “malnourished children were able to be rehabilitated,” Carosella said. “She was looking for livelihood opportunities when I met her,” she said, noting that “there are so many women in similar positions.”

Continuing conflict in Somalia

Somalia’s “continuous conflict and instability,” along with changing weather patterns, are responsible for its current crisis, Lane Bunkers, CRS country representative for Kenya and Somalia, told CNS.

The conflict started in 1991 when clan-based warlords overthrew dictator Siad Barre, then turned on each other. Today, the security threat posed by al-Shabab activity in south-central Somalia makes it difficult for CRS and others running emergency food programs to reach remote rural communities, Bunkers said.

Somalia is a “very undeveloped country that relies on rain, with rain-fed pasturelands,” and there has been insufficient rain for two years in a row, Bunkers said.

Drought conditions in Somalia are expected to continue, and recovery will not be until at least 2018, CRS said in a statement. More than 766,000 people have been displaced by the drought since November, it said.

In south-central Somalia, which includes the capital, Mogadishu, CRS has civil society partners to channel its resources for humanitarian relief.

“Somalia has very well-organized communities,” Bunkers said, noting that local communities have “stepped in to fill the void in education and health services” in partnerships with international nongovernmental organizations.

Somalis are “entrepreneurial people in a desperately poor country,” which has exceptionally active markets, Bunkers said. This is “born out of necessity” in a country that has had no functioning government for close to three decades, he said.

Somalis’ “wealth is held in their herd of animals,” Bunkers said, noting that in times of drought, men leave women and children behind and follow their goats, sheep or camels, seeking water and grazing land.

“It’s very rare to resort to killing animals for food” in Somalia, Bunkers said.

To help families where animals are already in distress, some relief agencies “pay the farmer for his goat and have him slaughter it so that his family has something to eat,” he said.

“The farmers are then able to use the cash at the markets to replenish their livelihoods,” he said.

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Priest kidnapped in Yemen pleads for help in a video

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Indian Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen more than a year ago, in a video message pleaded for the Indian government and the Catholic Church to do more to secure his release.

Indian Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen more than a year ago, is seen in a screen grab from a YouTube video. (CNS)

Indian Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who was kidnapped in Yemen more than a year ago, is seen in a screen grab from a YouTube video. (CNS)

The video was posted on YouTube by the news site Aden Time May 8; the heavily bearded and very thin Father Uzhunnalil is shown seated with a cardboard sign in his lap with the date April 15, 2017. A similar video was posted in December.

An official at the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes Yemen, said May 9 the person in the video is the kidnapped Salesian, but he would not comment further. Bishop Paul Hinder, the apostolic vicar, is away from the vicariate headquarters in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on a pastoral visit.

Father Uzhunnalil was kidnapped in Aden March 4, 2016, in an attack in which four Missionaries of Charity and at least 12 others were killed at a home for the aged.

In a meeting May 3 with Salesian novices studying in Italy, Pope Francis once again offered prayers for the kidnapped priest.

In the new video, Father Uzhunnalil began by stating his name and date of birth and thanking “my dear family people” for their messages of concern, which he said he has received.

Without describing his captors or referring to them as such, he said, “they are treating me well to the extent that they are able.”

“My health condition is deteriorating quickly and I require hospitalization as early as possible,” he said.

Father Uzhunnalil said his captors have contacted Indian government authorities “several times” and the replies, which he said he has seen, were “very, very poor.”

“They also contacted the bishop, bishop of Abu Dhabi,” he said. “There, too, the response was not encouraging. Neither the bishop nor the Indian government authorities ask them what they really want to get me released. It is a poor response, and I am sad about that.”

Asking his family and friends to pressure the authorities, he said, “Please, please, do what you what you can to get me released. May God bless you for that.”

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Pope Francis calls nuns killed in Yemen ‘martyrs of charity’

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The four Missionaries of Charity murdered March 4 in Yemen “are the martyrs of today,” Pope Francis said. “They gave their blood for the church.”

After reciting the Angelus with thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square March 6, Pope Francis publicly offered his condolences to the Missionaries of Charity and prayed that Blessed Teresa of Kolkata would “accompany to paradise these daughters of hers, martyrs of charity, and that she would intercede for peace and a sacred respect for human life.”

Yemeni pro-government fighters guard outside a Missionaries of Charity elderly home March 4 after unidentified gunmen targeted the home in Aden, Yemen. Four Missionaries of Charity and 10 to 12 other people were killed in the attack. (CNS photo/EPA)

Yemeni pro-government fighters guard outside a Missionaries of Charity elderly home March 4 after unidentified gunmen targeted the home in Aden, Yemen. Four Missionaries of Charity and 10 to 12 other people were killed in the attack. (CNS photo/EPA)

The four Missionaries of Charity and 12 other people were killed by uniformed gunmen, who entered the home the sisters operate for the elderly and disabled in Aden.

The superior of the Missionaries of Charity at the home survived by hiding, according to the Vatican’s Fides news agency. Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian Salesian priest who had been living at the home since Holy Family Parish in Aden was sacked and burned in September, was missing after the attack.

Although the sisters would not make news headlines, Pope Francis said, the martyred sisters “gave their blood for the church.”

The sisters and the 14 others killed “are victims of the attack by those who killed them, but also (victims) of indifference, this globalization of indifference that just doesn’t care,” the pope said.

Yemen has been experiencing a political crisis since 2011 and is often described as being in a state of civil war with members of the Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities vying for power; in the midst of the tensions, terrorist groups have been operating in the country, including groups believed to be associated with the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Although most Christians have fled the country, a handful of Salesian priests and about 20 Missionaries of Charity chose to stay and continue their ministry.

In a condolence message released March 5 by the Vatican, Pope Francis described the Aden murders as an “act of senseless and diabolical violence.”

The pope “prays that this pointless slaughter will awaken consciences, lead to a change of heart, and inspire all parties to lay down their arms and take up the path of dialogue,” the message said. “In the name of God, he calls upon all parties in the present conflict to renounce violence, and to renew their commitment to the people of Yemen, particularly those most in need, whom the sisters and their helpers sought to serve.”

Bishop Paul Hinder, head of the vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes Yemen, told AsiaNews, a Rome-based missionary news agency, that at 8:30 a.m. March 4, “persons in uniform” broke into the Aden compound, killing the guard and all employees who tried to stop them. “They then reached the sisters and opened fire.”

Two of the sisters killed were Rwandan, one was from India and one was from Kenya, the bishop said. Father Uzhunnalil apparently was kidnapped, he added.

“The signal was clear: This has to do with religion,” Bishop Hinder said.

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Gunmen kill nuns, elderly and disabled; priest missing in Aden, Yemen

By

Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Four Missionaries of Charity and 10 to 12 other people were killed March 4 after uniformed gunmen entered a home the sisters operate for the elderly and disabled in Aden, Yemen.

Several news outlets reported 16 people were killed, including patients.

Four members of the Missionaries of Charity were killed March 4 along with elderly residents of a home the sisters operate in Yemen, a Middle East country just south of Saudi Arabia. March 4 in Yemen, by gunmen ( CNS file photo)

Four members of the Missionaries of Charity were killed March 4 along with elderly residents of a home the sisters operate in Yemen, a Middle Eastern country just south of Saudi Arabia. March 4 in Yemen, by gunmen ( CNS file photo)

The superior of the Missionaries of Charity at the home survived by hiding, according to the Vatican’s Fides news agency. Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian Salesian priest who had been living at the home since Holy Family parish in Aden was sacked and burned in September, was missing after the attack.

Yemen has been experiencing a political crisis since 2011 and is often described as being in a state of civil war with members of the Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities vying for power; in the midst of the tensions, terrorist groups have been operating in the country, including groups believed to be associated with the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Although most Christians have fled the country, a handful of Salesian priests and about 20 Missionaries of Charity chose to stay and continue their ministry.

Bishop Paul Hinder, head of the vicariate of Southern Arabia, which includes Yemen, told AsiaNews, a Rome-based missionary news agency, that at 8:30 a.m. March 4, “persons in uniform” broke into the Aden compound, killing the guard and all employees who tried to stop them. “They then reached the sisters and opened fire.”

Two of the sisters killed were Rwandan, one was from India and one was from Kenya, the bishop said. Father Uzhunnalil apparently was kidnapped, he added.

“The signal was clear: This has to do with religion,” Bishop Hinder said.

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