Vatican City — The bishop who leads the apostolic vicariate that includes Yemen said he has "strong indications" that Salesian Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil "is still alive in the hands of his kidnappers."
Bishop Paul Hinder, head of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, told Catholic News Service March 28, "I have no confirmation that anything happened Good Friday" and added that the rumors appear to be untrue.
Uzhunnalil, an Indian, was kidnapped March 4 from the home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. Four Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack.
Speaking from his office in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Hinder said it appeared that in late March a rumor began in India that militants connected to the so-called Islamic State group planned to crucify Uzhunnalil on Good Friday. The rumor spread around the world through social media.
Leaders of the Salesian order in India said March 21 that there was no evidence to support the reports and asked people to refrain from "spreading false rumors."
Rumors that the murder was carried out began to circulate after Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna mentioned Uzhunnalil in his homily at the Easter Vigil March 26. The next day, the Vienna archdiocesan website posted a piece quoting Hinder and Indian Salesians as saying there was no evidence the priest was killed; Schonborn had spoken to church leaders in the region and believed "there is still hope."
Hinder told CNS March 28, "Nobody knows exactly what is happening." However, he said, "I have sufficient reason to doubt" the reports of Uzhunnalil's death.
The bishop refused to comment further, saying the situation is "too delicate."