Former Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph, an untiring advocate of Tamil rights and justice during Sri Lanka’s civil war and post-war years, passed away on Thursday. He was 80.
The Bishop was a vocal critic of the state, periodically taking up allegations of war-time killings and disappearances in the Northern Province, according to those familiar with his activism.
In addition to being a revered religious leader for Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking catholic community, Bishop Rayappu Joseph was a passionate human rights defender. “He was a very highly regarded activist, who had the social stature to engage with those wielding power, be it the President of the country, UN officials, or the LTTE leadership. And with all of them, he would speak his mind and assert himself,” recalls human rights activist Ruki Fernando.
At the same time, he had time for every ordinary visitor, from the relative of a forcibly disappeared person, to a displaced family, Mr. Fernando says. “The influence he had within the community was hard-earned. He would physically visit a site where there was trouble or concern, and meet with the people there.”
While many in the Tamil-majority areas hail the Bishop for his staunch support for the Tamil cause, his critics charge that he was less sympathetic to Muslims, who also faced discrimination. Within the Church itself, the Bishop was considered socially conservative by some, especially on issues pertaining to women. He was seen as a controversial figure in the island’s Sinhala-majority south that perceived him as supportive of the LTTE.