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Former Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph passes away

The former Catholic Bishop of Mannar and lifelong Tamil rights activist, Right Reverend Dr Rayappu Joseph has passed away, aged 80. Notably, Rt. Rev. Joseph used information from local government offices in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts to pinpoint that 146,679 people were unaccounted for following the final stages of the armed conflict in May 2009.

Born in Neduntheevu (Delft) on April 16, 1940, to a practitioner of indigenous medicine, Rayappu Joseph studied at Jaffna St Patrick’s College, after an early childhood spent in Cheddikulam and in Mannar.

He began his priesthood in 1967 and became Bishop of Mannar in 1992, retiring in 2015 following a stroke.

Rt. Rev. Joseph was a prominent and vocal defender of human rights and a campaigner of justice for Tamils. He authored numerous reports detailing the forcible disappearances of Tamil youths during the armed conflict and served as a witness for Sri Lankan military attacks, such as the 1999 Sri Lankan army shelling of Madhu Church which saw 37 Tamil civilians killed 64 wounded.

The former Bishop was a vocal critic of militarisation and regularly protested against state violations during the armed conflict, as well as advocating for the release of Tamil political prisoners. 

Rt. Rev. Joseph was often seen at rallies in support of Tamil self-determination, including during the wave of Pongu Thamil rallies in the early 2000s. In 2005 he said:

"There is nothing wrong in the Tamil nation raising its national flag. The Tamil national flag is not the Tigers’ flag but it is the Tamil people’s flag. Hoisting it is not against peace. Many who shout against it are silent over the recent killings.”

Rt. Rev. Joseph frequently called on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to work towards an end to violence, and led several demonstrations calling for peace. He was occasionally involved in mediating disputes between Tamil civilians and the LTTE.

Following the end of the armed conflict, Rt. Rev. Joseph continued campaigning for justice for the genocide committed against the Tamil people, defying the Rajapaksa regime’s post-war crackdowns on civil society and calling for an international investigation. His work with local government statistics, leading to the figure of 146,679 unaccounted for, was crucial in countering the Sri Lankan state’s claims of ‘zero civilian casualties’ from its onslaughts in the final stages of the war.

He was staunch in his rejection of domestic mechanisms for justice, writing in a letter to the Sri Lankan president’s 2014 Commission on Missing Persons:

“I have over the years grown to be weary of domestic mechanisms in resolving serious injustices that Tamil people have faced over the period of the war, prior to it and after its conclusion. Over the years many commissions such as yours have been set up and there is absolutely no shred of evidence that they have tackled impunity. Most, if not all of these commissions have provided only to be eye washers for the then Governments in power.”

In 2014, Rt. Rev. Joseph formally convened the Tamil Civil Society Forum, which remains a vital and critical voice of the Tamil people in the North-East today. He continued his advocacy and campaigning in defiance of threats from the Sri Lankan government and military, and even backlash from the Sri Lankan Catholic Church.

Rt. Rev. Joseph largely stepped back from campaigning and public life after suffering a stroke on May 2, 2015. He had been travelling to Colombo to meet then US Secretary of State John Kerry. His last major public engagement was the launch of the Talaimannar Public Rail Service during the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Rt. Rev. Dr Rayappu Joseph passing on April 1, 2021 has unleashed an outpouring of tributes to his decades of tireless campaigning and advocacy.

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