by D.B. S. Jeyaraj
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is expected to express concerns over the personal safety of most reverend Rayappu Joseph the Catholic Bishop of Mannar-Vavuniya diocese in Sri Lanka when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa calls on him at the Vatican later this week.
President Rajapaksa scheduled to visit Britain on June 3rd for a four day trip connected to the Diamond jubilee celebrations of her majesty Queen Elizabeth the second is expected to arrive on June 7th at the Vatican where he has been granted an audience with Pope Benedict.
President Rajapaksa is an ardent Buddhist but the Sri Lankan first lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa is a devout Catholic.
Highly placed sources in the Catholic church disclosed that Pope Benedict will personally express concerns over the safety and security of most reverend Rayappu Joseph the Bishop of Mannar in Northern Sri Lanka.
According to protocol followed in the Vatican his Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of the Holy See will take up the issue in detail with President Rajapaksa after his holiness the Pope expresses concern directly to the Sri Lankan head of state.
Although President Rajapaksa’s trip to the Vatican is primarily a visit of goodwill and the Pope has granted an audience as a matter of courtesy the issue of the Mannar Bishop will be chief among topics discussed.
Catholic church sources said that the Vatican is somewhat perturbed over the Mannar Bishop being the object of a verbal attack of a personal nature launched in Parliament by a cabinet minister in the Rajapaksa Government in early May. A calarification is likely to be sought as to whether the views expressed were reflective of the Government’s point of view.
Wanni district parliamentarian and cabinet minister of Industry and commerce Risad Badhiutheen criticised Bishop Joseph in Parliament over alleged anti-Muslim activity in the Sannar area of Mannar district. The minister is also the leader of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress(ACMC) which is a constituent member of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Govt.
Sections of the Catholic clergy and laity in Mannar objected vehemently over this speech and organized a meeting and public protest demonstration in Mannar town in support of the Bishop.
The Mannar Police intervened and sought a court order prohibiting the demonstration and meeting. It is alleged by Mannar residents that the Police acted in this manner on the instructions of the minister concerned.
The Mannar magistrate prohibited the demonstration but allowed the meeting to be held within private premises. Over 5000 persons from the Christian, Hindu and Islamic faiths participated at the meeting where resolutions in defence of the Bishop were passed.
A senior Muslim journalist who participated and spoke in support of the Bishop was assaulted and hospitalised by a prominent supporter of minister Badhiutheen.
Members of the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) representing the Wanni district like Adaikkalanathan,Vinoharadhalingam, Aanandan have also criticised minister Badhitheen for attacking Bishop Joseph.
The TNA leaders in turn have been criticised by Wanni district MP and ACMC member Hunais Farook.
While this political storm rages around Bishop Rayappu Joseph and minister Badhiutheen other developments have also led to growing fears about the Mannar Catholic prelates personal safety.
Two officials from state intelligence have recorded statements from the Bishop about the statement he made to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission about a large number of People from the Wanni region going missing.
Bishop Rayappu Joseph along with some members of the Northern clergy submitted a letter to the United Nations Human Rights council in Geneva about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka before the US sponsored resolution was passed.
This resulted in several Sinhala newspapers and Sinhala Buddhist political organizations attacking the Bishop viciously.
This in turn led to several members of the Southern clergy and laity issuing statements publicly in support of the stance adopted by Bishop Rayappu Joseph and the northern clergy.
The controversy has led to widespread concerns about Bishop Rayappu’ Joseph’s safety and security. Some fear that the Bishop may be the victim of an “officially sanctioned unofficial disappearance” or extra-judicial execution. Several Christian priests in the North and East have been victimised in that manner in the past.
This has led to several concerned human rights activists, NGO personnel,journalists and prominent members of the Catholic clergy and laity communicating their anxiety about Bishop Joseph’s predicament to the Vatican. These appeals seem to have struck a responsive chord in the Holy see.
It is against this backdrop that the Pope will convey his concerns to President Rajapaksa while the Cardinal will seek clarification from the Sri Lankan head of state.
Bishop Rayappu Joseph who was born in 1940 and inducted into the priesthood in 1967 has been the Bishop of Mannar for nearly 20 years. He has always been outspoken in defending the rights of his predominantly Tamil parishioners in particular and the larger civilian population of the North in general.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org