Updated | Rumors on Monday that the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) continued its persecution of Christian groups by crucifying a Catholic priest on Good Friday have now been walked back.
The rumored ISIS victim was the Rev. Thomas Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest, who was kidnapped in Yemen earlier this month during a raid on a Catholic nursing home run by Mother Teresa’s organization Missionaries of Charity.
Uzhunnalil, a native of India, was captured on March 4, in a raid which also killed 16 Christian nuns and nurses. His rumored death by the same method the Romans used to kill Jesus—an event marked by Christians around the world on Good Friday—was reportedly confirmed at the Easter Vigil Mass by Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, although the cardinal's claim were not independently verified.
Bishop Paul Hinder of Southern Arabia denied the reports later on Monday, saying that Schonborn had been misinformed. Hinder told the Catholic News Agency that there is “strong indications that Fr. Tom is still alive in the hands of the kidnappers.” He provided no further details.
The initial rumor came as ISIS’s crackdown on groups not affiliated with its radical brand of Salafism has helped fuel a huge drop in Iraq’s Christian population.
Less than 30 years ago, Iraq’s official census counted 1.4 million Christians residing in the country; however, since then figures have decreased radically, Al Jazeera reports.
The Iraqi civil war, between 2005 and 2007, forced thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee to nearby Syria, while others settled in Lebanon and Jordan. After the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, some Christian refugees returned to Iraq, however as ISIS spread across Syria and Iraq, figures have fallen once again.
According to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, an Iraqi research think tank, said the number of Christians in Iraq had dropped to fewer than 400,000 as of 2015.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused ISIS of committing genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi minority, Shia Muslims and Christians. The Iraqi and Syrian forces have made gains against militants in recent months, with Iraqi tribal fighters reporting last week that they have pushed ISIS from a crucial border point between the two countries.