On March 4, 2016, Salesian Father Tom Uzhunnalil was abducted by gunmen believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State in Yemen. Sixteen others, including four Missionaries of Charity, were murdered. Eighteen months and a miracle later, Father Tom was released on Sept. 12. “I thank God Almighty for this day, for keeping me safe, healthy, clear-minded,” he said during a press conference upon his return to Rome.
Father Tom wasn’t the only priest recently to face a harrowing ordeal and make it out alive. On May 23, 2017, Islamic State-allied militants in the Philippines tore through Marawi City, kidnapping Father Teresito “Chito” Soganub and dozens of other Christians. Almost four months later, on Sept. 16, Father Chito was rescued.
We give thanks and praise to God for the deliverance of these brave and holy men from captivity, fully recognizing that the end of these stories could have been different. Both priests had appeared in propaganda videos, and Father Tom, at one point, was believed to have been crucified on the first Good Friday of his imprisonment.
But we also remember those priests who have not been so fortunate. Father Cyriacus Onunkwo, of the diocese of Orlu, Imo State, was kidnapped in Nigeria on Sept. 1 and found dead the next day. He had been dragged from his car; no one was contacted about ransom. In July, two priests in the Congo — Fathers Jean-Pierre Akilimali and Charles Kipasa — were kidnapped. Though local bishops currently are trying to secure their release, history is not on their side: Three other priests kidnapped from the same area in 2012 were never found.
In Syria, two priests — Armenian Catholic Father Michel Kayyal and Greek Orthodox Father Maher Mahfouz — were kidnapped in February 2013; two months later, two bishops — Msgr. Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox diocese of Aleppo and Msgr. Boulos Yaziji of the Greek-Orthodox diocese — were captured while attempting to secure the priests’ release. Also in Syria, Italian Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio hasn’t been heard from since July 2013, when he entered an area under siege by the Islamic State to try to broker a deal for the release of others already kidnapped.
Unfortunately, such occurrences are becoming more common as Christian persecution increases worldwide. In a report earlier this year, the watchdog group Open Doors USA noted that the persecution of Christians is present on nearly every continent and growing, affecting approximately 215 million people in more than 60 countries. Each month, Open Doors reports, 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed, and Christians experience 772 forms of violence. The most extreme forms of persecution take place in North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Eritrea.
Christians in the Americas, too, are experiencing increased persecution, with Mexico, in particular, seeing an uptick in the number of attacks on clergy and members of the faithful. Christians in the United States are facing a more subtle persecution with the increasing dismissal of faith from the public square and recent attacks on religious liberty in the courts.
As we rejoice in the safety of Father Tom and Father Chito, and we pray for those who are missing or have died, we offer a prayer of gratitude for their witness. These are the faces of Christian persecution, reminding us of its reality as no numbers can. May God reward them for their sacrifice.
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor