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Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph was the Voice of the Voiceless

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Rayappu Joseph was frequently described as being a controversial bishop. He was often accused unfairly of being a Tiger sympathiser

There are many experiences and events during Bishop Rayappu Joseph’s lengthy record of service that are worthy of detailed re-telling

Even as the retired Bishop reflected on his life and times, he received a steady stream of visitors over the years who were appreciative of his dedicated priesthood and service

 

By
D. B. S. Jeyaraj

The Easter Sunday bombings of April 21, 2019 and its consequences have caused a profound impact on the body politic of Sri Lanka. A significant feature of his fall-out has been the bold initiative taken by the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. Immensely disappointed by the slow and tardy progress shown by the State in taking legal action against those allegedly responsible for the explosions that killed over 250 and injured over 500 on Easter Sunday, the Catholic prelate has been pressuring the Government in several ways to enact legal proceedings speedily against those perceived as being responsible. Since a very large number of the victims were Christians worshipping at the Catholic St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade, Colombo and St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo, Cardinal Ranjith’s demands are seen as valid and reasonable.(the third Church attacked was the Evangelical Christian Zion Church in Batticaloa).   


In his zealous bid to seek justice for members of the Catholic flock who were affected victims of horrendous attacks, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has upset quite a few including former President Maithripala Sirisena. Some have even overtly and covertly criticised the Cardinal for some of his controversial utterances. This however has not deterred the Cardinal from speaking out openly. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo has not hesitated to speak truth to power in his bid to avert injustice befalling victims of his flock. Even though some of his words and deeds in this regard may be unorthodox and controversial, it is widely accepted that Cardinal Ranjith has a legitimate right to voice his concerns, remedy injustice and seek justice in this grave issue. Even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara have openly acknowledged that Cardinal Ranjith is justified in demanding justice for his people or flock.   

 

As the premier shepherd of the flock in Mannar, the prelate spoke truth to power with formidable temerity. He incurred the wrath of “power” by speaking the truth   

 

Sadly this was not the case when a Tamil -speaking Catholic Bishop of a pre-dominantly Tamil speaking Diocese in the Tamil -majority Northern Province spoke out for his flock against injustice and demanded justice for his people. I am of course referring to the former Catholic Bishop of Mannar, the Most Rev. Rayappu Joseph who passed away on the first of this month. The Emeritus Bishop had served as the Mannar Bishop for over 23 years from 1992 to 2016. The terrible war between the Sri Lankan Armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) raged on for over 17 years during this period. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo is only dealing with incidents occurring on a single day but in the case of the former Mannar Bishop, he had to deal with a continual series of incidents affecting the people. Also, Cardinal Ranjith’s concern is over terrorism on one single day but Bishop Joseph had to cope with multiple human rights violations occurring over many years in his Diocese. 

 
The Catholic Diocese of Mannar consists of the administrative districts of Mannar and Vavuniya in the Northern Province. The area under the purview of this Diocese particularly regions in Mannar was severely affected during the conflict. In such a situation it was but natural for affected parishioners to turn to their Bishop for relief, succour, solace and guidance. To his credit, Bishop Rayappu Joseph rose to the occasion with commendable courage. As the premier shepherd of the flock in Mannar, the prelate spoke truth to power with formidable temerity. He incurred the wrath of “power” by speaking the truth. Orchestrated media attacks were launched accusing him of being a “Koti Bishop” (Tiger Bishop). Rayappu Joseph was frequently described as being a controversial bishop. He was often accused unfairly of being a Tiger sympathiser. 

 

 
Newspaper Interview
In an interview with the “Ceylon Today” newspaper some years ago the Most Rev. Rayappu Joseph was posed the following compounded question.   


 “Some of the allegations against you are that you did not condemn the LTTE for abducting children from schools, homes and orphanages to train as child soldiers and suicide bombers; did not condemn the LTTE for herding 300,000 civilians like cattle to use as a human shield to protect the terrorist leaders; removed the Virgin Mary’s statue from Madhu and took it to the LTTE controlled area, preventing other Catholics from praying to Her; did not condemn the attacks and killing of Buddhist clergy and pilgrims or Muslims worshipping inside mosques. It is also said that you have fabricated stories to slander the Sri Lankan armed forces and the government. “Either this Bishop or Father Emanuel insulted Jesus Christ by stating Jesus was like Prabhakaran,” some say. What is your reply to these allegations?   

 

Bishop Rayappu Joseph’s response was –“ I state categorically that I have never said Jesus is like Prabhakaran. I have always condemned violence and abuses by the LTTE. Even in my submission to the LLRC, there is a paragraph about Muslims who were evicted by the LTTE. My position and that of the Tamils in general, has been to examine the conduct of all sides to the conflict. I have previously clarified about the circumstances that led to the temporary removal of the miraculous Statue of Our Lady of Madhu, when the priests and others were hiding in bunkers amidst shelling. I’m also the Bishop of one diocese, the Diocese of Mannar, comprising districts of Mannar and Vavuniya. I have taken as my primary role as speaking on behalf of the people of the diocese, particularly as they were facing severe repression. Other Bishops do the same about their Dioceses. But, I do care about all others in Sri Lanka and beyond, even though what I have been able to do and say may have been limited, being preoccupied with the suffering of the people where I have been made the Chief Shepherd.”   


Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph’s position therefore is clearly articulated in the excerpt from the interview. “I’m also the Bishop of the diocese of Mannar, comprising districts of Mannar and Vavuniya. I have taken as my primary role as speaking on behalf of the people of the diocese, particularly as they were facing severe repression. I do care about all others in Sri Lanka and beyond, even though what I have been able to do and say may have been limited, being preoccupied with the suffering of the people where I have been made the Chief Shepherd.” Bishop Rayappu Joseph was the voice of the voiceless of the Mannar Diocese. 

 


Mannar Diocese
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Mannar encompasses the Northern Province Districts of Mannar and Vavuniya which formed part of the Jaffna diocese earlier. According to the 2012 Census, Christians numbering 56,932 comprise 57.48% of the Mannar administrative district population. It is the only district in Sri Lanka that has a Christian majority. Vavuniya administrative district has 22,820 Christians or 13.31% of the population, according to the 2012 Census. Catholics are over 90% of the Christians in the two districts.   


The Mannar diocese came into being on January 24, 1981. The diocese comprises an area of 3,998 sq km. According to Church estimates updated in 2018, the Mannar Diocese has 88,112 Catholics. There are 46 parishes,100 priests (65 diocesan, 35 religious), 214 lay religious (52 brothers, 162 sisters) and 28 seminarians. There are seminaries, convents, elders’ homes and children’s homes in the diocese. Above all, the Mannar diocese is home to the renowned Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu with a history of over 400 years. The Marian shrine situated in Marudhamadhu known as Madhu is regarded as the holiest Catholic shrine on the Island.   


Bishop Rayappu Joseph faced many problems in Mannar caused by the war. There were many incidents demonstrative of his predicament. One such incident was the bombing that occurred at Padahuthurai/Iluppaikkadavai in Mannar on the second day of January in 2007.I have written about this incident in detail in “The Sunday Leader” when it happened. I shall therefore briefly recount the incident and its aftermath here as it sheds much light on the circumstances in which Bishop Joseph functioned during those dark days of the war. It also indicates as to how and why the Mannar Bishop incurred the wrath of “power” by speaking the truth then. 

 

 
Iluppaikkadavai/Padahuthurai
“Iluppaikkadavai in the North-Western district of Mannar is a village along the Mannar – Pooneryn road coming under the Manthai West AGA division. The village is about 25 km to the north of Mannar town. In 2007 Illuppaikkadavai was within the area in Mannar district controlled by the LTTE. The place along the seashore where fisherfolk beach and launch their boats and rafts is generally known as Padahuthurai. The Padahuthurai in Iluppaikkadavai had become a dwelling place over the years for many displaced families from Naavaanthurai in Jaffna.”   


“On January 2, 2007, four planes all of them Israeli K-fir jet bombers swooped down from the skies at 9. 35 a.m. on Iluppaikkadavai/Padahuthurai. Three planes dropped four bombs each. The fourth dropped only two. There were twelve explosions with two bombs failing to explode. People screamed and ran in search of elusive safety. It was all over in ten minutes.”   

 

There are many experiences and events during Bishop Rayappu Joseph’s lengthy record of service that are worthy of detailed re-telling. Time and space constrain this column from doing so   


“The bombing at Iluppaikkadavai/Padahuthurai and the damage inflicted on civilians caused shock tremors as details began to emerge. A Press Release on the incident was issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “At least 14 civilians, including children, were killed this morning in north-western Sri Lanka during the aerial bombardment of the coastal village of Illupaikadavai, in the Mannar District by the Sri Lankan Air Force. At least 35 additional civilian casualties have also been reported” the UN press release said.   


“Initially the Government had only claimed that a sea tiger base north of Mannar had been bombed. As the truth behind the Padahuthurai bombing began to get revealed the Media centre for National Security issued a press release. It stated as follows -” The Air Force denied bombing civilian settlements in Illuppaikadavai, north of Mannar this morning as alleged by pro-LTTE media groups.”   


“Air Force Kfir jets carried out airstrikes on an identified sea tiger base in Illuppaikadavai, north of Mannar this morning. The sea tiger base in Illuppaikadavai was a well-identified target which was under constant monitoring by the SLAF. Intercepted Tiger communication revealed that the tigers were in need of urgent medical supplies. The LTTE is currently spreading false information that the SLAF has bombed a civilian settlement in an attempt to discredit the Security Forces and to win the sympathy of the International Community. The Air Force categorically denies bombing a civilian settlement north of Mannar”.   


The Government claim was effectively refuted by the Most Rev. Joseph Rayappu who visited Iluppaikkadavai at 12. 45 p.m. on the day of the bombing. He inspected Padahuthurai and spoke with survivors. He also made detailed inquiries about the alleged presence of an LTTE sea tiger base in the vicinity. The prelate also went to Pallamadhu hospital. Thereafter Bishop Rayappu wrote a letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa who was then the President on the bombing incident. He also released the letter to the media. Bishop Rayappu also held a media conference and spoke about the actualities at Iluppaikkadavai. An interview with the BBC was also given.   

 


Missive to Mahinda
Bishop Joseph Rayappu’s epistle to President Mahinda Rajapakse encapsulated all that happened precisely. Excerpts from that missive are re-produced here – :   
” Your Excellency,   


Aerial bombing that took place at Padahuthurai near Illupaikadavai, in the un-cleared area of the District of Mannar at 9.35 am Today the 02nd of January, 2007.Three Kfir bombers aided by an aircraft that is said to be supplying information to them, had been bombing the above small settlement of displaced people consisting of 35 families from Navanthurai, Jaffna.   


This aerial bombing took place today the 2nd of January, 2007 at 9.35 in the morning. I saw 12 spots where the bombs had struck and two of these bombs remain unexploded. The area of this attack is just within a radius of 100 metres close to the seashores. This settlement consisted of 35 Catholic families who were all very poor fisher-folk.   
I visited this very spot today at 12.45 Noon and the ICRC came there fifteen minutes later. Tomorrow morning i.e. on the third of January 2007, the SLMM is expected to visit this locality. After listening to the people and to the priests and religious working in the area and from my personal inspection, I wish to convey to you that there were no LTTE bunkers nor could we see any sign of their camps nor any individual residence of possible LTTE cadre in or in the vicinity of this area. This attack is clearly on a civilian target which, as far as I had witnessed, has blown to pieces 13 innocent civilians on the very dawn of the New Year 2007. It is feared that many more of the wounded would succumb to their injuries.”   

 


Hostile Response
The Bishop’s revelations evoked a hostile response from the state. The Media Centre issued a diatribe against the Bishop in very harsh language. This writer was critical of the way in which Bishop Rayappu Joseph was being attacked by the media centre. I wrote then – “A senior priest from a “minority” religion was unfairly condemned for voicing the suffering of a section of his flock. One wonders whether the media centre would have the temerity to issue such a statement against a Buddhist prelate or even a Sinhala Catholic Bishop? The silence of the Sinhala Catholics on matters like this is truly deafening!”   


Another major crisis faced by the Mannar Bishop was regarding Madhu. Since I have focused vividly on the Madhu Church crisis in another article on Bishop Joseph appearing in our sister paper “Daily FT” I Shall refrain from writing on that here.   


There are many experiences and events during Bishop Rayappu Joseph’s lengthy record of service that are worthy of detailed re-telling. Time and space constrain this column from doing so. However, I have devoted much of this column to focus on the Iluppaikkadavai bombing in a bid to highlight the extremely difficult environment and times during which Rayappu Joseph discharged his duties as the Catholic Bishop of Mannar diocese.   

 


Neduntheevu/Delft
Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph was born in the northern island of Neduntheevu known as Delft on April 16, 1940. His family later relocated to Ilavaalai in the Jaffna peninsula and subsequently to Cheddikulam in Vavuniya District. Rayappu Joseph studied at St. Patrick’s Collegein Jaffna and St. Joseph’s College in Anuradhapura. After entering the priesthood he was enrolled at St. Martin’s Seminary in Jaffna and later the National Seminary in Ampitiya, Kandy.


Rayappu Joseph was ordained as a priest on December 13, 1967. He obtained a Doctorate in CanonLlaw from the Pontificial Urban University in Rome. This resulted in him being appointed as a professor at the St. Francis Xavier Seminary in Colombothurai, Jaffna. Rayappu Joseph was consecrated as Bishop of the Mannar diocese at St. Sebastian’s Cathedral on October 20, 1992.   


Bishop Joseph celebrated his 75th birth anniversary on April 16, 2015. Thereby he reached the retiring age of 75 for a Catholic Bishop. On January 14, 2016, Bishop Rayappu Joseph stepped down from the pastoral care of the diocese of Mannar. Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph entered a state of blissful retirement after many years of dedicated service to God, Church and Humanity. He took up residence as Emeritus Bishop in a section of Bishop’s House, Mannar. Even as the retired Bishop reflected on his life and times, he received a steady stream of visitors over the years who were appreciative of his dedicated priesthood and service.   

 


Breathed his Last
Due to failing health, the Emeritus Bishop was taken early this year to the Holy Cross Health and Wellbeing Centre run by the Catholic Church in Colombothurai, Jaffna. He breathed his last and passed away peacefully in the early hours of the morning on April 01, 2021 just 15 days before his 81st birthday. There was spontaneous grief and widespread mourning. Thousands paid their respects to Bishop Joseph lying in repose at the chapel adjoining the Jaffna Bishops House. The respected and much loved Bishop’s body was brought in procession from Jaffna to Mannar. Thousands paid their respects when it lay in repose at the Mannar chapel and later the Cathedral.   


The Mannar Emeritus Bishop’s funeral was held on Monday, April 5, at the St. Sebastian’s Cathedral in Mannar. Almost all the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops including Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith participated in the requiem mass. The remains of the former Mannar Bishop was laid to rest within the hallowed precincts of the St. Sebastian’s Cathedral. The entire Mannar district observed Monday as a day of mourning. Black and white flags were flown all over. In Mannar town, all businesses remained closed. A statue of Bishop Joseph was unveiled in the heart of Mannar town.   

 


Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith
Let me conclude with an excerpt from an article in “UCAnews” about Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph where Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith is quoted. Here is Cardinal Ranjith’s observation on Bishop Joseph - “ Bishop Joseph was committed to the cause of peace in Sri Lanka and greater understanding between the various ethnic and religious groups. I remember how he insisted on a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the issues concerning the conflict and encouraged civil society leaders to actively engage. Unfortunately, those efforts did not succeed. I wish to remember him as a zealous advocate of peace and intercultural understanding among all communities in this country.”   


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com   

 




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