Gunmen in March 2016 killed 16 people at a Missionaries of Charity home for the elderly in Aden, an attack later claimed by ISIS. The dead included seven Yemenis, and the rest were workers from Africa and India, including four Catholic nuns. The militants kidnapped from the home and continue to hold Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from India’s Kerala state. In early July a Yemen official informed India that Uzhunnalil is still alive after a proof-of-life video emerged of the 58-year-old priest. In the video Uzhunnalil said in slow English, “My health condition is deteriorating quickly, and I require hospitalization as early as possible.”
Targeting Christians began with targeting Westerners. In 2012, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for shooting English teacher Joel Shrum, a 29-year-old American the group claimed was a missionary trying to convert Muslims. Only this year, the FBI announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of his assailants.
Taken together, the attacks have prompted thousands of Christians—mostly foreign-born workers from Africa and the West—to leave the country. While the U.S. State Department estimates the Christian population in Yemen between 3,000 and 25,000 people, Smith and others say the countrywide church today numbers about 1,000 believers, all Yemenis and most converts from Islam.
MUHAMMAD SAID, “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.”
But the Prophet of Islam in reality fled north, from Mecca to Medina in a journey in a.d. 622 that marked the start of the Muslim calendar and the rise and spread of Islam. Yemen’s Islamic roots, nonetheless, run to the religion’s earliest days. At the Great Mosque in Sanaa, the capital, laborers in the 1970s stumbled upon what turned out to be some of the oldest existing codices of the Quran, dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries.
Yemen’s roots in Judaism and Christianity, however, predate its Islamic heritage. Legend has it the southern Arab tribes converted to Judaism after the Queen of Sheba, who was from present-day Yemen, visited King Solomon. Whatever its origins, a Jewish community long had thrived in Sanaa when German Jewish photographer Hermann Burchardt arrived in 1901 to chronicle its way of life. At one point authorities prevented Jews from moving out of Yemen because they were proud of hosting the only Jewish community in the Arab world.