by Joe Bollig
SHAWNEE — Why Father Tom Uzhunnalil was not murdered is something he might never know.
He does know, however, that he lived through his ordeal by the grace of God — and that he must tell others about prayer, God’s mercy and the necessity of forgiveness.
Father Tom, 60, a Salesian of Don Bosco from the Province of Bangalore, India, visited Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee on Oct. 2.
He celebrated Mass and gave a talk about the March 4, 2016, terrorist attack in Aden, Yemen, and his subsequent 18 months of captivity. The terrorists killed 16 people — including four Missionaries of Charity Sisters.
Father Tom is from Kerala in southern India. Growing up, his relative, who was a missionary priest, would tell fascinating stories about his work — particularly in Yemen, a country on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula.
“Certainly as a young lad, his visits to the family we used to celebrate,” said Father Tom.
Father Tom wanted to be a missionary in Assam or Africa, but wound up teaching telecommunications technology in India instead. But finally, he got the opportunity to go to Yemen.
In 1992, the government had allowed the Missionaries of Charity to establish four centers in Yemen to care for the elderly. One was in Aden.
Father Tom went to Yemen in 2010, one of four priests who served the religious needs of the Missionaries of Charity, who numbered about 21.
But the country was not stable. A civil war began in March 2015. The Indian government demanded that all Indian citizens leave, but the Missionaries of Charity refused to leave the elderly they cared for, and one priest remained to serve the Sisters.
Father Tom had gone back to India for health reasons earlier in February 2015, before the civil war began.
“At Easter time, it was a special inspiration that prompted me to take permission from my superior to go back to Yemen,” said Father Tom. “I still had a valid priest’s visa. With difficulty, I reached Aden. It took two months to reach there — to the Missionaries of Charity home for the aged — on July 1, 2015.”
By early 2016, Aden had become so dangerous that Father Tom could no longer travel the 12 miles between the church and the Missionaries of Charity center. He stayed in their guest room and celebrated Mass in their small chapel. There were five Sisters there, as well as several Yemeni staff members.
On that fateful Lenten day in March, Father Tom led eucharistic adoration in the morning. Then, the Sisters cared for the elderly.
“I’d finished my prayers, perhaps by 8:30 a.m.,” he said. “I got out of that house and was moving to the drive onto the main compound and I heard two gunshots from near the main gate and the security room.”
Four terrorists had entered the compound. As he stepped out onto the drive, he was confronted by one of the terrorists, who grabbed his arm.
“I just said in all the Arabic I knew that ‘I am an Indian,’” said Father Tom.
The terrorist forced Father Tom to sit in the security room. Then, they began hunting for staff members, killing them. They found four of the five Sisters and killed them, too.
“I could see in the garden, maybe about 80 feet from where I sat,” he said. “They were firing [on two Sisters] in their heads from behind. They fell face down. All I could do was pray ‘Lord, have mercy on them.’ I also prayed for those killing them.”
The terrorists came back for Father Tom. They asked him if he were a Christian, and he said yes.
But they didn’t kill him. They bound his hands and threw him into the trunk of the car in which they arrived. Later, they opened the trunk and threw in a metallic object wrapped up in the chapel’s altar linens. It was the tabernacle.
Thus began Father Tom’s long Lent of captivity.
He was moved around to various houses and kept blindfolded most of the time. He never knew who his captors were, why they spared his life or what they wanted. They didn’t talk with him except when they forced him to make various videos and plead for his life.
In order to occupy his mind and keep up his spirits, Father Tom did mental calculations and technical lessons. He prayed the prayers of the Mass and other devotional prayers.
Although he lost quite a bit of weight, they fed him and did not physically abuse him. They even fed him while they were fasting during Ramadan, and provided diabetes medications.
Meanwhile, the world was horrified by a mistaken report that he had been crucified.
“I didn’t know anything about that until I came out,” said Father Tom. “And I’m thankful to the Lord for whoever spread that news [encouraging] everyone to pray for me. Perhaps those prayers prevented them from hurting me.”
Thanks to efforts by Pope Francis, the Indian government and the sultan of Oman, Father Tom was released on Sept. 12, 2017. He went to Rome to meet the pope and then returned to India.
Today, he lives in the provincial house and travels to talk about his experiences.
“So, my mission is to thank people for their prayer support and to share what the Lord is,” said Father Tom. “He’s alive, and he hears prayers, and gives answer. And I give witness to this truth that the Lord answers the prayers of everyone.
“I share the strength of prayer, hope and forgiveness. That’s my duty at the moment. Wherever I go, I share that.”