Yemen: In the hands of God

Extracted from the article on pages 12-13 by the Very Revd Peter Crooks MBE

We were late. The little congregation were returning to their pews but our arrival had been noted. The three Sisters in their distinctive blue and white saris beamed at us and Fr Tom (Uzhunnalil) came to greet us, enquiring thoughtfully if we would like time to ‘prepare ourselves’ before he gave us communion too.

It is now nearly three weeks since he was kidnapped in Aden from a home run there by the Missionary Sisters of Charity for some 80 elderly and fragile men and women. I have often thought since of his words, ‘time to prepare yourselves’, and prayed that in his captivity he will have found strength and courage and the company of angels.

Fr Tom had moved to the home for his own safety after the Church of St Francis, beside which he lived, just a few minutes’ walk from Christ Church, was vandalised and torched in September last year.

Those who took him, first locked him in his vestry and then found, bound and killed four of the five Sisters. The fifth, hid herself behind a door in a room to which the gunmen returned several times in search of her – incredibly, without finding her. The gunmen killed at least a dozen other people including Ethiopian and Yemeni nurses and carers, and most cruelly, a Yemeni lady doctor – a volunteer and a Muslim.

Expressions of grief, anger and revulsion were widespread, not least from young men and women who had readily given their time to work after school or their own work, as volunteers alongside the Sisters. ‘No one,’ wrote one of them on Facebook, ‘cared for our people like the Sisters.’

Yemen has seen a lot of death in this past year. Latest estimates put the number of dead at about 6,300, half of them civilians and of those it is reckoned that the vast majority died in their homes, in schools, in their streets and in their markets and even in hospitals, victims of airstrikes, ill-conceived and carelessly executed by warplanes of Saudi Arabia and its allies.

The war that has engulfed Yemen this past year and been largely ignored by those beyond its borders has brought untold misery and destruction. ‘There is no single family,’ writes journalist and friend, Nadia Al Sakkaf, ‘that has not been affected . . . both horizontally through the civil war and vertically through the airstrikes and anti-aircraft units.’

Yemen’s current war is popularly portrayed as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is that though Yemen observers far more knowledgeable than I suggest that the Iranian involvement is exaggerated and that much of the country’s present misery may be traced back to the Machiavellian schemings of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is reported to be seeking refuge for himself and his family in the UAE. If he leaves, few will grieve his going and there are many who will wish that he had gone long ago. Talks aimed at ending the conflict have begun this week between the Houthi leadership and Saudi Arabia. The future of Yemen remains precarious and the plight of its people wretched. Famine stalks in many of its provinces.

That Christ Church, Aden should still be standing, admittedly with its lovely Yemeni windows blown out and roof well battle-scarred and the eye clinic beside it busy and functioning smoothly against this extraordinarily harsh and unpredictable backdrop, is a miracle. The congregation has been scattered. Only Rex, a delightful Filipino engineer, remains and it is many months now since worship was offered in any of Aden’s churches, though I gather that small numbers of Yemeni Christians continue to meet cheerfully and faithfully in homes across the country to worship and to pray.

The fact that the eye clinic is still functioning (45 – 55 patients a day and 6 – 8 operations a week) owes much to the courage, faith, remarkable resourcefulness and love of Mansour Khan, its most conscientious administrator ; to the staff, and at Mansour’s ready admission, the prayers of many friends.

Peter and Nancy Crooks lived and worked in Aden 2004-2008. Peter was the chaplain at Christ Church and director of the clinics. Peter’s book, Yemen: Heartbreak and Hope is reviewed on page 20.