Claims that ISIS crucified Indian priest, but doubt remains

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)A Houthi fighter raises his weapon March 26, 2016, in protest of one year of Saudi Arabian intervention in the country's civil war. The Houthis are one side in the battle. There are three others: the Yemeni government; the Saudis; and ISIS. ISIS reportedly abducted and crucified a Catholic priest there March 25.

LONDON (Christian Examiner) – A British newspaper has reported that an Indian Catholic priest abducted by a faction of the Islamic State in Yemen earlier this month was crucified on Good Friday, but enough doubt about the claim still exists to give church leaders hope the priest may still be alive.

Father Thomas Uzhunnalil was abducted March 4 after militants stormed the nursing home in Aden where the priest and several foreign nuns were caring for the elderly and other refugees from the four-way war between Yemeni Shiite Houthi rebels, ISIS, the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia. Almost immediately after the abduction, reports began to circulate that ISIS would make a mockery of the crucifixion of Jesus by crucifying the priest on Good Friday.

In this context, we reiterate that so far no information about the place or the current condition of Father Tom has come from credible and reliable sources. Therefore, we make a sincere appeal to all those concerned to stop spreading such unsolicited, misleading messages. Meanwhile we continue to pray for Fr. Tom, may the Lord protect him from all pain and deliver him from the clutches of evil forces as soon as possible.
- Vatican News, statement on kidnapped priest

While public crucifixion is not uncommon for ISIS, what is unusual is that ISIS, which normally makes much of such public spectacles, has released no video of the priest's martyrdom.

In spite of the absence of hard proof, on Easter Sunday Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, announced to his congregation that the priest had been crucified. The report was then picked up in Austrian media and, subsequently, English-language media.

The archbishop later said through a spokesman that though the announcement was made, it was made without confirmation of the priest's death. Instead, the spokesman said, the report was based on media from the region.

Indian officials claim there are, in fact, no such reports of the priest's crucifixion. In fact, there is no news at all, India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said on Saturday. Swaraj pledged the Indian government would undertake every effort to see the priest returned unharmed.

A spokesman for the priest's Bangalore province, Father Mathew Valarkot, also said the church had "absolutely no information" about Uzhunnalil's whereabouts or his physical condition. All of the reports, he insisted, were based on rumors about those responsible for the abduction. No group has contacted the Catholic Church to demand ransom or claim responsibility for the attack.

"These are all rumors. When no has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, how do we know other details?" Valarkot asked.

On March 23, the Vatican encouraged the Catholic faithful to hold prayer vigils for the Salesian priest. It also warned about speculating on the priest's fate until the church had received a definitive report.

"In this context, we reiterate that so far no information about the place or the current condition of Father Tom has come from credible and reliable sources. Therefore, we make a sincere appeal to all those concerned to stop spreading such unsolicited, misleading messages. Meanwhile we continue to pray for Fr. Tom, may the Lord protect him from all pain and deliver him from the clutches of evil forces as soon as possible," the Vatican's statement said.

Uzhunnalil is a Salesian priest, or a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a religious order founded during the Industrial Revolution to care for poor children and the elderly. In June 2014, a Jesuit priest, Father Alexis Prem Kumar – also from India – was abducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was released in February 2015 after being warned he would be killed if he returned.

Uzhunnalil had been in Yemen since 2010. Four nuns of the order of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, and eleven others, died in the attack on the nursing home.