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Warning: this story contains descriptions of war that some readers may find distressing.
Indian Catholic priest and former ISIS captive Fr Tom Uzhunnalil shared his powerful testimony of survival this week at the Fatima Centre in Murrumbeena on Monday.
A Salesian of Don Bosco in Bangalore and a member of Missionaries of Charity, Fr Tom was kidnapped by terrorists in Yemen on 4 March, 2016. He had been serving as a priest in Yemen from 2010 assisting Mother Teresa’s Sisters who were taking care of the elderly and sickly.
‘I think I’m here because you have all prayed for me,’ said Fr Uzhunnalil as he opened his talk.
Recalling his movements on the morning of the attack, he remembers having finished his prayers in the small chapel by 8.30am to the sound of gunshots.
‘As I stepped out of the small gate of the sisters’ compound, a man with an automatic weapon was running towards me and caught hold of my hand,’ he said.
Fr Tom saw several sisters being forcibly taken, followed by the sound of gunshots once again. ‘I could see them from about one hundred to a hundred and twenty feet away, being shot,’ he said. ‘All I could say was, Lord, have Mercy on the sisters.’
Fr Tom was then taken to the terrorist’s car. ‘Reaching there, I thought it was my turn to be shot. The man asked if I were a Muslim. I told him no, I’m a Christian.’
Fr Tom then recalled the man opening the trunk of his car and asking the priest to climb in.
While in the boot of the car, Fr Tom remembers feeling a metal object which he thought was the tabernacle and he thought to himself ‘Jesus is here with me.’
‘I was blindfolded as I wasn’t allowed to see the place,’ he explains. He was taken to an unknown location where he was kept prisoner. During the year-and-a-half that he was captive, Fr Tom was shifted six times to different locations. ‘The last place I stayed was for about a year or more,’ he said.
‘They had also taken videos of me five or six times, asking me to say “please help me, save me.’’ He had no concept of time throughout the ordeal, Fr Tom said, except for when his kidnappers gave him a piece of cardboard when recording his appeal for rescue.
‘Once such date I remember was the 27th of December, 2016. That’s how I knew that Christmas was just two days before. I’m thankful I didn’t have any nightmares and I could sleep well. I thank God for that,’ as he said his time was spent in prayer the entire time, including Mass.
Though his eyes were covered most of the time throughout the ordeal Fr Tom recalled the sounds of women and children, which gave the impression that he had been held hostage in a family home. He was also kept fed, even during the Ramadan season. ‘Whatever they were eating in their family, they gave me,’ he said. ‘If they’d eat chicken biryani or mutton biryani, they used to give me that.’
On 12 September 2017, Fr Tom was released into Omani custody and after thanking Qaboos bin Said al Said, the Sultan of Oman who negotiated his release, was sent to Rome to the Vatican Hospital and then to meet with Pope Francis.
Fr Tom says he has survived the ordeal not only physically unharmed but also survived with no psychological breakdown or mental health issues as a result. To this day, he does not know the specific circumstances surrounding his release.
Fr Tom Uzhunnalil continues his work with Don Bosco, assisting abandoned children and youth of Bangalore and Kerala. If you wish to support this charity please go to http://dbbangalore.org/yar/
To purchase Fr Tom Uzhunnalil’s book By the Grace of God, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.