Fate of ISIS Captive Indian Priest Fr. Tom Uncertain

“Ms Sushma Swaraj [the Minister for External Affairs] has categorically assured the delegation that Fr Tom Uzhunnalil is safe and that the government is adopting all possible means for the quick and safe release of Fr Tom,” the Catholic Bishops Conference of India said in a statement earlier this month [April 2016] after a meeting with her.

The CBCI delegation, led by its deputy secretary general, Monseigneur Chinnayyan, had little more to add on the fate of the Salesian priest who was kidnapped on March 4 from a home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. Sabrangindia has been following this story over the past three weeks, since Good Friday this year.

Four Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack by militants reportedly connected to ISIS, as was widely reported in the media. Reports later went viral when someone wrongly quoted Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna saying in an Easter Vigil homily that the ISIS had crucified Fr Uzhunnalil on Good Friday. Till the moment of the writing of this piece, there is no further information, either from the CBCI or from the Indian government.

Hopes for Fr. Tom have waxed and waned with divergent “news” going viral on social media, and even usually reticent web portals. In a communiqué on Easter night, Bishop Paul Hinder, in charge of the Catholic Church in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, indicated that the priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco order was alive though “no information can be given about the efforts to get Fr. Tom free.’

The bishop asks “not to decrease the prayers” for Fr. Tom. Bishop  Hinder said  he had “reason to believe that the man in robes was alive and in the hands of the kidnappers.” Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who had earlier reportedly confirmed the execution of the priest, later told the Kathpress news: "There is still hope."

The reports of the crucifixion of Fr Tom first flashed when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn was quoted reportedly mentioning it during the Easter Vigil at Stephansdom. The Dominican prelate was quoted saying the 56-year-old Salesian was crucified by ISIS on Good Friday. Polonia Christiana carried  the news, based on Austrian media reports. Catholic News World carried the report on Easter, March 27. Church sources now say the Vienna cardinal might have based his statement on a WhatsApp message. 

Last year, Fr Alexis Prem Kumar, a Jesuit from Tamil Nadu working in Afghanistan looking after schools in remote areas, was abducted by one faction of the local Taliban and released many months later. He remains silent on the months of his captivity when every moment was an uncertain pause between life and death as he was handed over by one group to another, taken long distances blindfolded, and kept in caves and huts.

In Iraq, it (India) really has no more has any political and diplomatic clout, or even a dialogue route, to the local powers…. India has to depend on the Saudi route, and, of course, Washington.”

His release was the result of much diplomacy of course, and complex negotiations between the Jesuits, the Vatican, the Saudis, Pakistanis, Afghan government and private armies, and the Pakistani army, surely. The Americans, who have much clout with the Saudis who in turn have a running financial, theological and political relationship with all Islamist groups worldwide, according to the international diplomatic and security establishments, also played a role. And so did money. No one is talking, and therefore no one will know.

This is the way it has always happened. If Fr Tom is alive, and I hope and pray he is, this is the way he will be released. This has happened even with the ISIS where a lucky few have found their way to freedom. A very few, one may add. The gory pictures of beheadings, incineration, hangings and firing squads serve a wider psychological purpose for the terrorists.

Bishops in India’s north eastern states know a thing or two about negotiating with armed political ethnic and religious groups in that region, who routinely abduct civilians, run a parallel taxation structure, and make some cash through abductions. In the past, such groups have also abducted, or kidnapped as they say, the occasional priest, diocesan or religious.

Rarely have the clergy been killed, though this too happens, in the North East as much as in Orissa. But when the priest is set free, one can be quite sure it is not because of a change in heart of the militant group.

The church is helpless on the face of terrorism. Within India, we have seen it in Kashmir, Punjab, the Naxalite and Maoist movements, and of course the myriad shapes militancy takes shape in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland.

We also see it in the context of the Hindutva terror and violence, where the state machinery is either complicit or guilty of impunity. Religious and diocesan men and women are even more helpless. And the individual Christian man or woman who ventures into these dangerous zones can trust only in God, for he or she  does not even have the financial resources that are so much a part of escaping the brunt if militancy.

India as a country is particularly vulnerable when its citizens are abducted. Unlike in the past, or at the beginning of the US misadventure in Iraq, it really has no more any political and diplomatic clout, or even a dialogue route, to the local powers. It cannot have a connect with the Islamic State, or with its allies in Pakistan-sponsored groups that target either Afghanistan or India itself. At the end of the day, India has to depend on the Saudi route, and, of course, Washington. The Vatican too can really operate only through the Saudi rulers or Washington. It has failed to make any impress on the current crisis in Syria. The Vatican and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation have been reportedly working with Mid East groups for Fr Tom Uzhunnalil’s rescue.



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