(RNS) A desperate videotaped appeal by a Catholic priest kidnapped in Yemen by Islamic extremists last March surfaced over the Christmas holidays, raising new hopes for his release but also concerns about his health and the state of efforts to free him.
Looking thin and wearing a long beard, the Rev. Tom Uzhunnalil speaks in a halting, weak, almost robotic voice on the video, which was posted to YouTube and Facebook on Christmas Eve.
Members of Uzhunnalil’s Salesian order confirmed that the man in the video was the priest.
In the five-minute message, Uzhunnalil pleads with Western nations, the government of his native India and Pope Francis for urgent assistance.
“Dear Pope Francis, dear Holy Father, as a father, please take care of my life,” the priest says. “I am very much depressed. My health is deteriorating. I am in need of hospitalization soon. Please come to my help quickly.”
Uzhunnalil claims that his captors have made repeated attempts to negotiate with the Indian government and Catholic officials but he says nothing has happened. “I am very sad that nothing has been done seriously in my regard.
“If I were a European priest, I would have been taken more seriously by authorities and people and would have got me released,” Uzhunnalil continued. “I am from India and perhaps am not considered of as much value. I am sad about this.”
The priest was taken captive during a brutal attack on a Catholic nursing home in the lawless nation on the Arabian peninsula last March. The ISIS-affiliated attackers shot and killed several local workers and then sought out four nuns who worked there and executed them before destroying the Christian symbols in the residence’s chapel.
Uzhunnalil apparently sought to consume all the consecrated hosts in the chapel tabernacle before he was taken hostage and carted away. His fate was uncertain for weeks.
In April, some commentators, especially in the West where the kidnapping was seen as further evidence of anti-Christian persecution by Muslims, spread rumors that the Indian priest was to be executed by crucifixion, like Jesus, on Good Friday.
Those reports continued to circulate despite protests by church officials who said they threatened Uzhunnalil’s safety and undermined efforts to find information on his status.
In early May, the Vatican representative in Southern Arabia, Bishop Paul Hinder, revealed that authorities finally had confirmation that Uzhunnalil was still alive.
Yet there had been nothing further until the video was posted to the internet on Dec. 24.
Indian officials told church leaders in the southern coastal state of Kerala, where Uzhunnalil is from, that they were “doing everything possible” to secure his release.
The brutal civil war in Yemen has claimed the lives of thousands in recent years and has led to such political instability that officials say it is difficult to know whom to negotiate with.
A statement from Hinder’s office said he was working through “diplomatic channels” internationally and locally to try to “secure a safe release.”
The statement said the church has “strong indications to believe that (Uzhunnalil) is still alive” even though “the source of the video, the date of its creation and the circumstances under which it was recorded are unknown.”