During the civil war, he served as bishop of Mannar, in the north. A supporter of the Tamil people, subject of abuses and attacks, abductions and land grabs, he was suspected of supporting the Tamil Tigers and for this, he received threats.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Mgr Rayappu Joseph, bishop emeritus of Mannar, died on Thursday at the age of 80. He was known to all as an advocate of peace for his country and justice for Tamils.
Born on 16 April 1940, on the northern island of Neduntheevu, also known as Delft, he was educated at St Patrick's College, Jaffna, and St Joseph's College, Anuradhapura.
He became a priest on 13 December 1967 and later studied in Rome for a doctorate in Canon Law at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. He was fluent in Italian, German and English.
In 1992 he was appointed bishop of Mannar, northern Sri Lanka, an area caught up in the civil war between government forces and Tamil insurgents.
He was vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka and head of the National Commission for the Laity. He became bishop emeritus in 2016.
In his dealings with the Vatican, Caritas Internationalis, and the European Union he was known as a supporter of the Tamil cause and even suspected of being close to the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla group that fought against Sri Lanka’s regular army.
“His death is an unbearable pain, a great loss,” said A Marianayagam, from Pesalai, who sang a funeral hymn in front of the bishop’s body at last night's funeral vigil in Mannar. “During the war he was everything to us, to the ‘voiceless’, the missing and displaced in the north.
“Because of this he was often labelled a supporter of the Tamil Tigers, but in reality, he supported us. He was a real pastor and a father to all of us. I shall never forget his love.”
For Herman Kumara, National Convener of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, “Mgr Rayappu Joseph was crucified by Sri Lankan society several times when he defended his people and their rights”.
The bishop was committed to the people who went missing, and to people of the fishing community of Mullikulam, who were driven off their land by the military who seized their beaches. “He was a good shepherd for all of us and guided us in very difficult times,” Kumara noted.
Fr Victor Soosai, vicar general of Mannar, shows the breadth of the late bishop's dedication. “He always acted on behalf of the Tamil people on issues like war crimes, land grabs, enforced disappearances, rights violations.
“He exposed such discrimination to the entire international community in order to find a political solution for the Tamil community,” he added.
During the conflict he was very critical of the government and the military and received many threats from some politicians and government supporters.
Brito Fernando, president of the Families of the Missing, remembers him as “a great symbol and a true priest who committed his life to the Tamil people, even when no support came from the rest of the Church. We shall never forget him.”