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Retired Sri Lankan bishop risked life for Tamils, say activists

Prelate survived assassination attempts while championing the rights of the underprivileged

Retired Sri Lankan bishop risked life for Tamils, say activists

A file photo of Bishop Rayappu Joseph visiting a displaced Tamil family during Sri Lanka's civil war. (Photo by ucanews.com, Colombo)

Sri Lankan rights activists are hailing the work of Bishop Rayappu Joseph who, due to ill health, resigned on Jan. 14 from the pastoral care of the majority Catholic Tamil Diocese of Mannar.

Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, said Bishop Joseph played a major role in helping Tamil civilians during Sri Lanka's civil war.

"He organized people who were terrified to stand up for their democratic rights to vote at elections," Perera told ucanews.com.

From 1999 to 2001, before the Norwegian government acted as the peace facilitator, Bishop Joseph and his Sinhalese counterpart, then-Bishop Malcolm Ranjith of Ratnapura, were intermediaries between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Perera said.

"Bishop Joseph gave credible, courageous and spiritual leadership to the Catholic Church in the midst of life-threatening conditions," he said.

During the conflict, the bishop was a vocal critic of the government and military's conduct, which resulted in him being threatened by government supporters and some politicians.  

The activist said that Bishop Joseph demonstrated immense strength of character to speak up publicly and to issue public statements when other political, civic and religious leaders had fallen silent due to the threat of assassination.

Perera said one of the bishop's most courageous actions was during the 2005 presidential elections. Although the Tamil Tigers effectively forbade the Tamil people from voting at the election, Perera said that Bishop Joseph assisted people to participate in the democratic process and risked his life doing so.

"He was alone amongst all the civil society and religious leaders to openly organize the people to vote as per their duty as citizens," Perera said.

 

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Bishop Rayappu Joseph has been a brave advocate for social justice and human rights in Sri Lanka. In this file photo Bishop Joseph visits displaced Tamils during the country's civil war. (Photo by ucanews.com, Colombo)

 

Hindus and Christians

Leading human rights defender, Ruki Fernando said that most Hindus and Christians consider Bishop Joseph as an unflinching advocate and defender of their rights and dignity.

"In my frequent visits to the bishop's house in Mannar, there would always be a long line of people to meet him — mostly survivors and families of victims of human rights violations," said Fernando.

"Bishop Joseph regularly visited prisons, refugee camps, resettled villages and was often on the scene within hours after massacres and other human rights violations," he said.

"While spending so much time with such people, he also engaged with top Sri Lankan officials, heads of the military and Tamil Tiger leaders plus representatives of foreign governments and the UN."

Fernando said that the bishop asked the government hard questions, backed up by evidence and eyewitness accounts, about the massive casualties inflicted upon the Tamil population during the last stages of the war.

"The bishop was subjected to assassination attempts, interrogated several time by Sri Lankan authorities, and ridiculed and branded a 'terrorist supporter or a Tamil Tiger' by the Sri Lankan government and media and even some church leaders," he said.

"Families of disappeared, those killed, political prisoners, those whose lands are occupied will be ones who will mostly feel ill-health of the bishop. The human rights community will also miss his voice."

Bishop Joseph has experienced deteriorating health since last year and spent time in a Singaporean hospital for treatment.

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