I am called a controversial Bishop because there are ‘controversial’ issues taking place

rayappu josephBy D.B.S.Jeyaraj.                                                                   

A news report from the Vatican Information Service(VIS)  datelined January 14th 2016 stated that  His Holiness Pope Francis has  accepted the resignation presented by Bishop Rayappu Joseph upon reaching the age limit,  from the pastoral care of the diocese of Mannar, Sri Lanka.The VIS report further said that Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Joseph Kingsley Swampillai, Bishop emeritus of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, as apostolic administrator of the  Mannar diocese.

On the same day the Vatican Radio announced that the Holy Father has accepted the resignation presented by Monsignor Rayappu Joseph, from the pastoral care of the Diocese of Mannar, in Sri Lanka, in accordance with canon 401 § 1 of the Code of Canon Law and has appointed Mosignor. Kingsley Swampillai retired bishop of Trincomalee, as Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Mannar, Sri Lanka.

Both the Vatican information service news report and Vatican Radio announcement about Bishop Rayappu Joseph were extensively quoted and reproduced in various media organs of Sri Lanka. The news about the Mannar Bishop retiring was not a surprise to many for two reasons.Firstly Monsignor(msgr)had reached the retiring age of 75 for a Catholic Bishop last year. The second and more important reason was his physical health as the prelate was suffering from serious  health issues.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph had suffered a stroke  on May 3rd 2015 in Colombo  that afflicted his right hand and right leg badly.After undergoing treatment at the Intensive care unit of Colombo National Hospital  he was taken to the De La Salle Brother Residence at Modera and placed under medical care. Thereafter he was taken to  Singapore in August for surgery to have a blood clot in his brain removed. The surgery was successful and the prelate returned to the Bishop’s House in Mannar where he is now recovering gradually. He also has diabetes and chronic asthma.

Against this backdrop ,Msgr. Rayappu Joseph  relinquishing his duties of Pastoral care as Mannar Bishop was inevitable.With Pope Francis accepting his resignation the former Mannar Bishop would now be Bishop Emeritus of Mannar. Though recuperating the Bishop emeritus receives a steady stream of visitors ranging from simple parishioners to self – serving politicians. Having served as Bishop for over two decades in Mannar  the prelate is immensely popular with his flock and fellow shepherds. Moreover the outspoken  Bishop has endeared himself to the Tamil people at large by speaking out courageously on issues affecting the community.

Rayappu Joseph was born in the Northern Island of Neduntheevu known as Delft on April 16th 1940.His family later relocated to Ilavaalai in the Jaffna peninsula and subsequently to Cheddikulam in the Vavuniya district. Rayappu Joseph studied at St.Patricks College in Jaffna and St.Josephs College in Anuradhapura.After entering priesthood he was enrolled at St.Martins Seminary in  Jaffna and later  the National Seminary in Ampitiya.Kandy. Rayappu Joseph was ordained as a priest in December 1967.He obtained a Doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontificial Urbaninana University in Rome. This resulted in him being appointed as a professor at the St. Francis Xavier Seminary in Colombothurai,Jaffna. Msgr.Rayappu Joseph was consecrated as Bishop of  the Mannar diocese at St. Sebastians Cathedral  in October 1992.

The Catholic diocese of Mannar encompasses the Northern province districts of Mannar and Vavuniya which formed part of   the Jaffna diocese earlier. The Mannar diocese came into being in January1981. The diocese comprises an area of 3,998 sq km with  89,516 Catholics. There are 34 parishes with over 200 priests and nuns. There are numerous 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 in the Island.It may be recalled that Pope Francis himself participated at a Marian prayer service at Madhu on Jan 14th 2015 where he entreated “ Through the intercession of Our Lady of Madhu, may all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land”.

The escalation of the ethnic conflict resulted in a virtual civil war that ravaged the pre-dominantly Tamil regions of the North and East for over 20 years. Areas coming under the Catholic diocese of Mannar suffered terribly during the conflict. Several   churches were damaged.People  were  killed,maimed or went missing. Even members of the Catholic clergy were killed or made to disappear.Thousands were displaced from their homes. Even  the venerated statue of our lady of the rosary had to be taken away from the Madhu shrine for safekeeping.

Spoke Truth to Power With Formidable Temerity
In such a situation the affected parishioners often  turned to their Bishop for relief, succour 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.By doing so he irritated the powers that be. 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 and a feline in a cassock.

The Mannar Bishop in an interview to the “Lakbima News” newspaper in 2012 answered  some of these charges. On the question of being called a controversial bishop he replied thus –“I am called a controversial Bishop because there are ‘controversial’ issues taking place and when I speak on those issues I turned to be ‘controversial’.If I speak out, I am an ‘outspoken Bishop’. If I care for the poor and fight for justice, I am an anti Sri Lankan, a LTTE or a separatist. So, what am I to do? I care less about these names, but I will keep voicing against injustice and fight against human rights violations”.

He was also asked  in the interview whether he was a tiger or an ardent supporter of the LTTE. His reply was – “I don’t know why I am called so. It’s their weakness to call me so. I never accepted their killings and atrocities. I have condemned their killing and received death threats. I never wanted a separate country. Not even in my dreams. As a priest and follower of Jesus Christ who was a victim of violence yet manifested the Truth, the Life and the Way, I am doing my duties”.  The “controversial” bishop went on to say “I am only standing for the truth and justice. We are talking about human lives and there are no ‘adjustments’ in human lives”

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 when it happened in “The Sunday Leader”. 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 in the North – Western district of Mannar  is a  village along the Mannar – Pooneryn road  coming under the Manthai West AGA division. The village was about 25 km to the north of Mannar town.In  2007 Illuppaikkadavai was within the area in Mannar district controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)The place along the sea shore where fisherfolk beach and launch their boats and rafts is generally known as Padaguthurai. Such places known as Padaguthurai are widely prevalent in coastal areas with a fishing tradition. The padaguthurai in Iluppaikkadavai had become a dwelling place over the years for many displaced families from Naavaanthurai in Jafna.

Bombing at Iluppaikkadavai/Padaguthurai 
On January 2nd 2007,  four planes all of them Israeli K-fir jet bombers swooped down from the skies at 9. 35 am on Iluppaikkadavai/Padaguthurai .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.Around 25 of the Padaguthurai dwellings were destroyed and damaged. The thatched cadjan roofs caught fire in many instances. About 50  people were injured. Some of them succumbed to injuries. There were people whose bodies were blown to pieces. Others were maimed losing limbs.

The bombing at Iluppaikkadavai/Padaguthurai 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 Mannar District by the Sri Lankan Air Force. At least 35 additional civilian casualties have also been reported” the UN press release said. It went on to state “Sri Lankans continue to suffer deeply due to this conflict, and today’s loss of life is a source of deepest concern,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Acting Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Initially the Govt had only claimed that a sea tiger base north of Mannar  had been bombed. As the truth behind the Padaguthurai 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 air strikes 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  Govt claim was effectively refuted by the Most  Rev Joseph Rayappu  who visited Iluppaikkadavai at 12. 45 pm on the day of the bombing. He inspected Padaguthurai 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 to the BBC was also given.

Epistle to President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Bishop Joseph Rayappu’s epistle to President Mahinda Rajapakse encapsuled all what happened precisely. Excerpts from that missive are re-produced here – :

” Your Excellency,
Aerial bombing that took place at Padahu Thurai 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 sea shores. This settlement consisted of 35 Catholic families who were all very poor fisher-folk. There is a Catholic church on this very spot in clear sight. They were living in small cadjan sheds. The Parish priest of this locality in the person of Fr. P. Arulnathan OMI and most of the priests and religious working in this area are very familiar with this location, the people and their day to day life.

I visited this very spot today at 12.45 in the afternoon 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 a 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.

I, in the presence of the Catholic priest of this area saw eight civilian bodies of the above tragedy at the Pallamadhu hospital out of whom three were children of 2, 6 & 11 years old. They were all limbless and three of them headless. The parish Priest of this area had seen five bodies of civilians known to him who succumbed to at Mulankavil hospital, this morning. I was told by the Doctor of the Pallamadhu hospital that more than 35 wounded people had been dispatched to Mulankavil hospital and from there, nearly 25 serious cases had been sent to Kilinochchi hospital most of whom were, I was told children and women. A good number of these may not survive, I was told by a doctor. There were no LTTE killed in this incident except one who was on leave and had come in civil, minutes before the attack to this place to pay a New Year visit to his mother-in-law, as I came to know from my inquries. ”.

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!”

Major Crisis Faced By The Mannar Bishop
Another major crisis faced by the Mannar Bishop was regarding Madhu. Events pertaining to the Madhu shrine where even the statue of our lady of the rosary got temporarily displaced were testing times for Bishop Rayappu Joseph. He came in for heavy criticism for his conduct at that time. I wrote extensively then about what was happening and the problems faced by Bishop Rayappu Joseph in that situation.

During the early 2008  phase of the war   the army was steadily advancing in the Mannar district  and retaking areas controlled by the LTTE. The tigers resisted but were being compelled to retreat gradually. In this climate of war Catholic Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph tried  very hard to safeguard and protect the Madhu church from harm.The Bishop  made repeated requests to both the Sri Lankan Govt  and  the LTTE that Madhu area be declared a zone of peace. By the end of March 2008  an order was issued in Colombo that Madhu should be “taken” by April new year.The armed forces made a determined military drive from Periya and Sinna pandivirichaan towards Madhu through the Madhu sanctuary jungle terrain.

Even as the security forces intensified military efforts the LTTE also changed tactics. The tigers began setting up positions inside the Madhu church sanctuary jungle areas.The LTTE also came into the outer precincts of the church. The tigers were not inside the church or church compound but began using the church camping area which technically is classified as church precincts. This is more than 70 acres in extent.

When church authorities objected the LTTE said “Ask the army not to proceed further in this direction. we will go away”.The security forces in turn insisted that the LTTE move away first with their artillery and mortars.Both sides were intransigient.Thus Madhu church environs got militarised.Fighting escalated and shells began raining.Shells began falling inside Madhu church precincts and camping areas for pilgrims. Shells fell on the priests quarters, outer premises of the church, a drinking water well etc.The church did not suffer a direct hit but window panes cracked due to explosion impact. A barrage of shells landed on the outlying road to Palampitty.

All civilians evacuated. The skeleton staff took refuge in bunkers, popping out during lulls , to engage in evacuation work.With the LTTE moving into church precincts and the security forces moving forward church authorities realised that Madhu church was going to be directly caught up in fierce fighting.This prompted them to leave.

Even as the  Madhu church precincts became increasingly vulnerable, charges and counter – charges began flying.The LTTE accused the security forces of making war on holy ground and charged that army shells were falling inside church premises. The army denied the charges and pointed the finger  back at the LTTE.The tigers were accused of using church premises as a mortar launching pad. These charges in turn were vehemently denied by the LTTE.

Bishop’s Appeal  To Protect Our Lady of Madhu Shrine

Bishop Rayappu Joseph who had been  earlier unsuccessfully imploring both sides to make Madhu a peace zone  now  made a last – ditch effort to prevent impending disaster and preserve church sanctity and safety.He issued a public appeal on Tuesday April 1st  2008 urging that both sides keep the Church and vicinity as a peace zone. The full text of the Bishop’s appeal to protect the shrine of our lady of Madhu was as follows –

“The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is a much respected and venerated shrine to Catholics all over Sri Lanka. For more than 400 years Catholics and as well as non Catholics have gathered around Our Lady of Madhu as a unique Shrine that has served the spiritual needs of Sri Lankans from different walks of life, different ethnicities, different religions and different areas of the country. For more than two decades, in the midst of the conflict and mass displacement, Madhu Shrine also served as a place of refuge for all affected people. Madhu Shrine has been recognised locally and internationally as a “safe haven” and “place of refuge” for people fleeing in the face of war and destruction”.

“The Church administration has always maintained the Shrine and the area around purely as a place of religious worship and a place of refuge for displaced people. It was strictly kept out of bounds for any type of military or political activity. In the last few weeks we have been extremely concerned that this sacred Shrine and its functions as a centre of spiritual and humanitarian service has come under severe threat due to the escalation of the ongoing military conflict. Shells are falling within the Church premises several times and many of those staying there have been compelled to leave, while priests and the other church workers who are still remaining, live in fear and are being forced to seek shelter in bunkers”.

“The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, the Bishop and the priests of Diocese of Mannar have been appealing to the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army to refrain From using the area gazetted as the Madhu Church Reservation under the “Pilgrimage Ordinance” in 1982 for military and political purposes and to respect its sacred and humanitarian nature. Appeals have been made to the President of Sri Lanka to declare the Madhu Shrine as a “Zone of Peace” through a special gazette notification in order to ensure that the Shrine can continue to serve as a religious and humanitarian space.”

“Today, as military operations are taking place very close to the Shrine, we are compelled to make an urgent appeal to both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to respect the Madhu Shrine and the area mentioned above as a Zone of Peace, keep away from the Shrine areas and to ensure that the area remains completely and solely under the administration of the Church. At this crucially difficult juncture, we appeal to all Catholics, all Sri Lankans, particularly those who have a deep sense of belonging and devotion to Our Lady of Madhu as well as all religious leaders and the International community to join in our efforts to safeguard the sacred and humanitarian character of this very special place of worship”.

“For this intention, we will hold a special prayer service in Mannar tomorrow, 2nd April stating from 9:30am at the St Sebastian s Cathedral. We Invite all our Catholics and people of goodwill to join in our cry addressed to both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to completely desist from using the Madhu Shrine for their military and political purposes.We also invite all faithful and devotees to fast and pray on Fridays and pray the rosary every Saturday for this purpose and for peace in our dear land.May our Lady of Madhu, the dear Mother of the people of this land bless our country with peace through politically negotiated settlement”.

Special Service At  Mannar St. Sebastians Cathedral
Consequent to the Bishop’s appeal thousands of catholics gathered on April 2nd at the St. Sebastians Cathedral in Mannar for a special service of worship to pray for our lady of Madhu church. Bishop Rayappu Joseph himself conducted the service. Thereafter the Bishop along with hundreds of religious dignitaries, and devotees of all religions engaged in a peace march from the cathedral through St. Sebastian and Bazaar streets and reached the District Secretariat located on Manner Main Street

The Bishop handed over an appeal to the then  Mannar District Secretaty/Government Agent A. Nicholas Pillai.Mannaar Bazaar remained shut down, public offices and private businesses did not function for more than 3-hours, during the prayer and procession.Despite Bishop Rayappu’s fervent efforts, events began  overtaking.The LTTE kept on  setting up defences within close proximity to the Church. At the same time there were indications that the security forces may  not practise the  earlier restraint shown.Escalating military activity meant that the church would  be in the line of direct fire soon.In that context damage to the Church was a strong possibility.

The greatest treasure of Madhu was the sacred statue of  Mother Mary and baby Jesus.The risk of the statue being damaged was very much there.Thus the painful decision to re-locate the statue was taken. Earlier it was planned to bring the statue to St. Sebastans Cathedral in Mannar. But the LTTE objected as it was in GOSL controlled area.The tigers wanted the statue to be brought to the tiger heartland of Mullaitivu district.Church authorities refused. After heated arguments there was a compromise and  the statue was taken to Thevanpitty adjacent to Mulangaavil in LTTE controlled territory.

The following paragraphs are excerpted from what I wrote then in “The Nation” about the  relocation of the statue-
“The benign presence of “Madhu Maadhaa” (Our Lady of Madhu) or “Sebamaalai maadhaa ” (Our Lady of the Rosary) had made church precincts and environs an oasis of refuge and haven of peace in the past.Yet, in what was perhaps an illustrative indictment of the escalating war, the sacred statue of our lady of Madhu and baby Jesus joined the ranks of those internally displaced by the war in Sri Lanka” .

“Four Catholic priests Fr.S. Emilianuspillai,Fr. A. Gnanapragasam,Fr. E. Sebamalai and Fr. T. Sahayanathan arrived in a white coloured motor vehicle at the premises of St. Xaviers Church in Thevanpitty on Thursday April 3rd.They brought with them the sacred statue from the Church in Madhu. It is unclear at present whether the statue will be kept indefinitely at St. Xaviers Church or taken to another safer place in the near future”.

Marian Deity Joins Fellowship Of The Displaced
“As for now the internally displaced “Maadhaa” statue will remain at the church in Thevanpittty .Thevanpitty adjoins Mulangaavil along the Mannar – Pooneryn road. Technically Mulangaavil falls under Kilinochchi district though it is on the border of Mannar district.A large number of displaced Tamil Catholics from Mannar district have sought refuge in Mulangaavil and adjacent areas. Now the Marian deity herself has been compelled to follow in the footsteps of her followers and join the fellowship of the displaced”.

“It was indeed a sad moment to listen to the voice of Bishop Rayappu as he stated sorrowfully over the BBC Tamil service “Thamilosai” that the statue was being re- located and that our Lady of Madhu had become a refugee in her own land.

It was for Bishop Rayappu Joseph a personal tragedy as the much misunderstood and much – maligned prelate had struggled very hard to prevent this disaster. Bishop Rayappu had tried hard in the past to preserve and maintain the sanctity of Madhu . He wanted to avoid military action that would damage the church. But now like Job of the old testament the thing that he had greatly feared had come upon him”.

The circumstances in which Madhu was caught up in the conflict resulting in the statue of our lady of Madhu joining the fellowship of the displaced is narrated here again to denote the difficult predicament faced by Bishop Rayappu Joseph during the war.  He was criticised strongly but unfairly as an  agent of the LTTE for authorising the transportation of the blessed statue to Thevanpitty in tiger controlled territory. Many feared that the sacred statue was lost forever.

Yet the day of light dawned after the night of darkness. The Holy statue of our lady of Madhu did return to her home again. The cruel  war ended and  an uneasy peace emerged. Normalcy returned gradually to Madhu.  It was with immense joy that Bishop Rayappu Joseph welcomed  Pope Francis  to Madhu last year. He had been vindicated at last. To strike a personal note this writer himself was able to pray at the Madhu church in a serene atmosphere in 2013 when he visited the land of his birth after an absence of 25 years.The mystique of Madhu remains eternal.

There are many 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 and the Madhu church conflict in a bid to highlight the extremely difficult environment and times during which  Rayappu Joseph discharged his duties as the Catholic Bishop of  the Mannar diocese. Both incidents are illustrative examples of the unenviable situation  faced by Bishop Rayappu Joseph   and the courage shown by him  then.

“I Have Fought The Good Fight”
Mannar  Emeritus Bishop  Rayappu Joseph goes into a state of benign and blissful retirement after many years of dedicated service to God, Church and Humanity. Even as the retired Bishop   reflects on his life and times in the coming years of golden twilight , he can surely echo St. Paul in saying “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (Daily Mirror)

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