10 March 2016, The Tablet

Salesian Society confident of negotiating return of kidnapped priest

Negotiations will be difficult but not in vain despite no clue as to whereabouts of missionary taken during raid in Aden that killed four nuns

The Salesians are confident that they can negotiate a release for an Indian Catholic priest despite there still being no clue to his whereabouts almost a week after terrorists snatched him during an attack on an old people’s home in Yemen that killed 16 people, including four Missionaries of Mercy.

Four gunmen attacked a convent and nursing home in the southern Yemeni city of Aden on 4 March, killing four nuns, two Yemeni female staff members, eight elderly residents and a guard.

Father Tom Uzhunnali, a priest from Kerala, India, who is a member of the Salesian order, was praying in the chapel of the convent at the time of the attack. Yemeni authorities later confirmed the 56-year-old priest had been kidnapped, and blamed Isis for the attack. “We are aware that no group had claimed the attack ... but information points to Daesh,” a security official is reported to have said.

India’s minister of foreign affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has said that officials in neighbouring Djibouti were trying to ascertain the priest’s whereabouts to secure his release. However she has expressed doubts about the efficacy of the government there. The Vatican and Catholic’s Bishops Conference of India are reported to be involved in tracing the priest’s location.

But Father Francesco Cereda, vicar of the rector major for the Salesians, is confident that they can locate and return the Salesian missionary to safety: “We believe that these efforts will not be in vain,” he told Catholic News Agency.

“However, in the highly fragmented society of Yemen, negotiations will definitely prove to be difficult, and we cannot predict how soon we will be able to achieve Father Tom’s liberation.”

A relative of Uzhunnali told the Indian newspapers that the priest had only returned to Aden in November and was waiting for a replacement before returning to India.

The Salesians have worked in the Yemen since 1997 and are the only Catholic priests working in the country. Following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, the government of India asked its nationals to leave the country. By 2014 they had shut their embassy and brought back thousands of their nationals.

Aden has been racked by lawlessness since supporters of deposed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by Gulf Arab Military forces, drove fighters of the Iran-allied Houthi group from the city in July last year.

Pope Francis called the nuns killed in the attack "today’s martyrs" saying they were both victims of their killers and of global indifference. "They do not make the front pages of the newspapers, they do not make the news. They have given their blood for the Church," he said in his Sunday message to thousands of people in St. Peter's Square.

"They are victims of the attack by those who killed them but also victims of indifference, of this globalization of indifference. They don’t matter," he added, departing from his prepared text.



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