Confusion prevails over the fate of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, an Indian priest from the Bengaluru province of the Salesians of Don Bosco, after some international media reports and social media messages said that he had been crucified by the Islamic State on Good Friday.
Indian government officials and priests of the Salesian Order have said that these reports are unconfirmed. Bishop Paul Hinder, head of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, told news agencies that there is every indication that Uzhunnalil is still alive.
Uzhunnalil had been kidnapped from a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen on March 4 by a group of men believed to be members of the Islamic State. Sixteen people including four nuns were killed in the attack.
A survivor was reported as having seen the attackers push Uzhunnalil into a car and drive away.
There has been little news of the priest since his abduction but a Facebook post last week by a South African religious group called the Franciscan Sisters of Siessen claimed that it had been informed that Uzhunnalil was being tortured and would be crucified on Good Friday. The post that was widely shared on social media has now been deleted.
On Friday, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj confirmed Uzhunnalil’s abduction and tweeted that the government was trying to secure his release and safe return. On Monday, sections of the Austrian media reported that Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna had, in his Easter address, confirmed Uzhunalil’s execution by crucifixion by the Islamic State. The news was picked up by international papers like the Washington Times, the Daily Mail and The Independent.
Officials with the Ministry of External Affairs said that the reports are unconfirmed, The Hindu reported.
Uzhunnalil is from Pala in Kerala’s Kottayam district and has been with the Salesian order of Don Bosco for 35 years. He spent much of this time working with underprivileged youth in Karnataka in backward areas of the Kolar Gold Fields, Bhadravati and Bangalore. The priest worked to give technical and vocational training to young people.
In 2010 he went to the Don Bosco mission in Yemen where he collaborated with the sisters Missionaries of Charity, the institution set up by Mother Teresa, taking care of the destitute, sick and elderly.
When the war broke out in Yemen, all foreign nationals including priests were asked to return to their home countries. Uzhunnalil, too, returned to Indian in September last year.
“But Tom said he had to get back because the sisters and the people who we serve are there and they need our presence,” said Father Jose Koyickal with the Bengaluru province of the Salesians of Don Bosco. “With the war, there was no protection or security and they were working at their own risk.”
Koyickal and other Salesian priests are still waiting for word of Uzhunnalil. Officers with the Jesuit Refugee Services in the Middle East said that reports of crucifixion are in all likelihood only rumours.