God’s Extraordinary Kindness
“Often, I think about those 557 days, when I was in captivity. I was vulnerable, but not defeated. I was anxious, but not desperate. I had worries, but never lost trust in His Almighty hands.” These are the words of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who recently visited Salesian Missions USA to offer a first-hand account of his abduction, imprisonment and eventual release in war-torn Yemen.
“I say a big thanks to our Lord for permitting me to be present here, and to thank you all in Jesus’ name … [He] is our loving God who has heard our prayers,” said Fr. Tom before a transfixed audience comprising Salesian Missions and Provincial Center staff, and students from nearby Salesian High School.
Originally from Kerala, India, Fr. Tom was ordained into the Salesian order in 1990, and had fulfilled a variety of roles across India prior to being assigned to Yemen in 2010 at the request of the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity of St. Mother Teresa. Along with Fathers George Muttathuparambil, George Puthussery, and Varghese John, he served as chaplain among four charity homes for the aged run by the Sisters. He also offered religious services for Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Filipino foreign nationals living in Yemen.
Five years later — near what was to have been the end of his assignment — a devastating air strike launched by an international coalition aligned against a Yemeni-based rebel group thrust the country into a full-blown armed conflict: one with heartbreaking consequences for civilians on the ground. Since March 25, 2015, more than 3 million men, women and children have been displaced from their homes; and an additional 22 million more require life-saving humanitarian assistance. Sadly, those who would like to flee simply can’t; they’re trapped by destroyed roads and armed blockades.
Witnessing this crisis unfold before his eyes, Fr. Tom resolved to remain in Yemen — despite the evacuation of thousands of Indian nationals and advisories from the Indian government against travel to the area.
That decision nearly cost him his life.
On March 4, 2016, Fr. Tom was visiting a home in Aden run by the Sisters, when four armed militants burst into the building in a murderous attack that killed 15 people — including eight elderly residents and four nuns, two of whom were executed before Fr. Tom’s eyes.
“It was a big shock,” recalled Fr. Tom, still visibly shaken by the memory. “I just prayed to the Lord, ‘Lord, have mercy on the Sisters, and give me strength.’”
The motivations for Fr. Tom’s kidnapping remain unknown. He doesn’t understand why his life was spared over the others. And so, throughout his imprisonment, he prayed for God’s strength and guidance.
“In my disturbed mind I kept asking God if the Sisters were already with Him in heaven … this was my biggest preoccupation of my prayer,” he recalls in his recently-released autobiography. “One day, something made me pray that God should send rain as a sign from heaven that the Sisters are now enjoying the Beatific Vision. Believe it or not, that evening there was a very heavy shower; there was lightning and thunder. Looking at the rain … I thanked the Lord in my heart.”
His most urgent prayer now answered, Fr. Tom explained how he employed what he described as “spiritual survival tactics” to get him through his interminable days of uncertainty: celebrating Mass in his head, and praying the Stations of the Cross, the Angelus, the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet in order to ward off doubt and fear.
Around the world, faithful Catholics also prayed in solidarity for Fr. Tom’s safe release. After 18 months — on September 12, 2017 — God answered. The priest’s captors released him, unharmed, into a chain of protective entities that ultimately led to the Vatican.
“God has been extraordinarily kind,” Fr. Tom said.
Today, Fr. Tom views his mission as one of bearing witness to the tragedies of war and hatred, in the hopes of effecting lasting peace and love.
“In Yemen now, the war is still not over,” he said. “Let’s pray for the end of war. Let no country have any war. The hardships of war are too hard. Hundreds of thousands of young people, men and women, lose their life. Our prayer will help them.”
“We were truly in the presence of a holy man,” concludes Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions, of Fr. Tom’s visit. “His humility and deference to God, Mother Mary and Don Bosco shone as he described a time when his faith was being tested.”
In recognition of his “bravery and resilience in the face of adversity; his dedication and commitment to a place of great danger; and his inspiring example of compassionate humanity,” the Harmony Foundation recently honored Fr. Tom with its 2017 Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice. Based in Mumbai, India, the Foundation focuses on spreading peace, dialog and community support regardless of religion, caste, gender or ethnicity. The 2017 award recognized “compassion across borders,” specifically within the context of the worldwide refugee crisis. In an online article reported by Christian news outlet UCAN India, Abraham Mathai — founder of the Harmony Foundation — said, “Fr. Uzhunnalil had the option of leaving Yemen in 2015, but he chose to stay and provide humanitarian aid in the midst of such terror.”
Our mission perseveres in parts of the world that others have abandoned … ministering to those in need of corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. What’s your mission?