Kidnapped Christian priest in Aden reveals underbelly of Saudi-run religious witch-hunt

SHAFAQNA – Two days after Catholic priest was reportedly abducted by unidentified gunmen from a convent in Aden, Yemen, his family members in Kerala said they were awaiting more details of the incident.

Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a 56-year-old Salesian priest from the Province of Bangalore, was abducted after gunmen attacked a  convent and nursing home for the elderly run by Kolkata-based Missionaries of Charity. The gunmen killed at least 16 people, including four nuns, one of them — Sr Anselm — from Jharkhand. The priest studied theology for four years at KR Puram in the City and served as a priest for 26 years in Karnataka before taking up charity work in Yemen.

Fr Uzhunnalil, who hails from Ramapuram in Kerala’s Kottayam district, has been in Yemen for close to five years. He chose to serve in strife-torn Yemen despite knowing the dangers he faced, said Fr V M Mathew, spokesperson of Don Bosco Provincial House.

Augustine Uzhunnalil, the priest’s cousin, said family members were communicating with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) but information they received was “sketchy” since India does not have an embassy in Yemen.

“We’ve been asked to pass on details, including his passport number. Since the embassy (in Sanaa) was closed down last year, it’s extremely difficult to ascertain details of the abduction,” Augustine, a lawyer, told the press.

Unconfirmed reports said the priest was staying at the convent since the church he was deputed at was burned down in September last year. On its official page, the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia says Fr Uzhunnalil was deputed at the church of St Francis of Assissi in Aden.

This new attack against Aden Christian community came to reinforce latent fears that increasingly violence Wahhabi militias in South Yemen will run a witch-hunt against religious minorities.

While most of Aden’s Christian community left Yemen on the onset of the war, not all were able to flee the conflict. Those families now find themselves stuck in South Yemen, under the control of Saudi Arabia, a country which has little tolerance for religious different than its own: Wahhabism.

One particular family in Aden Shafaqna spoke to, revealed they had to flee their homes after militiamen came to threaten them with death should they fail to renounce their faith, to embrace Wahhabism.

The family of 6 has now sought shelter with Muslim friends, hoping to journey to North Yemen where they fell they will be much safer from oppression.

The father, whose identity Shafaqna has agreed to keep anonymous, explained how he would much rather face the fear of bombardments in Sana’a, than the agony of religious persecution in his home-town.

“The Saudi-led coalition said it had come to liberate us from corruption, and nepotism … instead they have enslaved us and denies us our religious rights. Churches have been burnt down, shelled and looted. We are a poor people but we still had our God. now they want to deny us that. They want us to reject our faith and embrace their own. This Islam they are preaching I do not recognize. The South has changed under Wahhabism … it was a place of tolerance once, it was a place I called home once … Now we are on the run. What will happen of us I don’t know. It’s in God’s hands.”

Christians are not the only target of Saudi Arabia’s militiamen’s wrath. Shiites too have been threatened with violence.

By Catherine Shakdam for Shafaqna

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