Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph and the Madhu Church crisis

The Sri Lankan Tamil people in general and Catholics in particular were deeply saddened by the loss of Bishop Rayappu Joseph. The words of St. Paul (2.Timothy 4.7) – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” – serve as a fitting epitaph to Most Rev. Rayappu Joseph

by DBS Jeyaraj, Financial Times, Colombo, April 5, 2021

Former Catholic Bishop of the Mannar Diocese the Most Rev. Rayappu Joseph passed away peacefully in Jaffna on 1 April, just 15 days before his 81st birthday. He served as Mannar Bishop from 1992 to 2016. The Mannar Emeritus Bishop’s funeral is scheduled to be held today, 5 April, at the St. Sebastian’s Cathedral in Mannar. All the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops are expected to participate in the requiem mass.

The Catholic diocese of Mannar encompasses the Northern Province Districts of Mannar and Vavuniya which formed part of the Jaffna diocese earlier. The Mannar diocese came into being in January 1981. The diocese comprises an area of 3,998 sq km with over 90,000 Catholics. There are 37 parishes with over 250 priests and nuns. There are numerous seminaries, convents, elders’ homes and children’s homes in the diocese.

Above all, the Mannar diocese is home to the renowned Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu with a history of over 400 years. It may be recalled that Pope Francis himself participated at a Marian prayer service in Madhu on 14 January 2015 where he entreated, “Through the intercession of Our Lady of Madhu, may all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land.”

Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph was born in the northern island of Neduntheevu known as Delft on 16 April 1940. His family later relocated to Ilavaalai in the Jaffna peninsula and subsequently to Cheddikulam in Vavuniya District. Rayappu Joseph studied at St. Patrick’s College in Jaffna and St. Joseph’s College in Anuradhapura. After entering priesthood he was enrolled at St. Martin’s Seminary in Jaffna and later the National Seminary in Ampitiya, Kandy.

Rayappu Joseph was ordained as a priest in December 1967. He obtained a Doctorate in Canon law from the Pontificial Urbaninana University in Rome. This resulted in him being appointed as a professor at the St. Francis Xavier Seminary in Colombothurai, Jaffna. Rayappu Joseph was consecrated as Bishop of the Mannar diocese at St. Sebastian’s Cathedral in October 1992.


Speaking truth to power

The escalation of the ethnic conflict resulted in a virtual civil war that ravaged the pre-dominantly Tamil regions of the north and east for over two decades. Areas coming under the Catholic diocese of Mannar suffered terribly during the conflict. Several churches were damaged. People were killed, maimed or went missing. Some members of the Catholic clergy too were killed or made to disappear. Thousands were displaced from their homes. Even the venerated statue of Our Lady of the Rosary had to be taken away from the Madhu Church for safekeeping at one time.

In such a situation it was but natural for affected parishioners to turn to their Bishop for relief, succour, solace and guidance. To his credit Bishop Rayappu Joseph rose to the occasion with commendable courage. As the premier shepherd of the flock in Mannar, the prelate spoke truth to power with formidable temerity. By doing so he irritated the powers that be.

The Catholic prelate incurred the wrath of “power” by speaking the truth. Orchestrated media attacks were launched accusing him of being a “Koti Bishop” (Tiger Bishop). Rayappu Joseph was frequently described as being a controversial bishop. He was often accused unfairly of being a Tiger sympathiser and a cassock-wearing feline.

The Mannar Bishop in an interview to the Lakbima News newspaper in 2012 answered some of these charges. On the question of being called a controversial bishop he replied thus: “I am called a controversial bishop because there are ‘controversial’ issues taking place and when I speak on those issues I turned to be ‘controversial’. If I speak out, I am an ‘outspoken bishop’. If I care for the poor and fight for justice, I am an anti-Sri Lankan, a LTTE or a separatist. So, what am I to do? I care less about these names, but I will keep voicing against injustice and fight against human rights violations.”

He was also asked in the interview whether he was a Tiger or an ardent supporter of the LTTE. His reply was: “I don’t know why I am called so. It’s their weakness to call me so. I never accepted their killings and atrocities. I have condemned their killing and received death threats. I never wanted a separate country. Not even in my dreams. As a priest and follower of Jesus Christ who was a victim of violence yet manifested the Truth, the Life and the Way, I am doing my duties. I am only standing for the truth and justice. We are talking about human lives and there is no ‘adjustments’ in human lives.”


Madhu Church crisis

Bishop Rayappu Joseph faced many problems in Mannar caused by the war. I have written extensively about many such incidents in the past. Due to space constraints I shall focus on the major crisis faced by the Bishop in 2008 concerning the Madhu Church.

The Marian Shrine situated in Marudhamadhu known as Madhu is regarded as the holiest Catholic Shrine in the island. On a personal note, I too am greatly devoted to our Lady of Madhu though I am a Protestant Christian. When I returned to the land of my birth in 2013 after an absence of 25 years, one of the blessings I received was the opportunity to pray and meditate at Madhu again in a tranquil atmosphere.

Events pertaining to the Madhu Shrine where even the statue of Our Lady of the Rosary got temporarily displaced were testing times for Bishop Rayappu Joseph. He came in for heavy criticism for his conduct at that time. What happened then was this. During the early 2008 phase of the war the Army was steadily advancing in the Mannar District and retaking areas controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tigers resisted but were gradually compelled to retreat.

In this climate of war Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph tried very hard to safeguard and protect the Madhu Church from harm. The Bishop made repeated requests to both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE that Madhu area be declared a zone of peace. By the end of March 2008 an order was issued in Colombo that Madhu should be “taken” by April new year. The armed forces made a determined military drive from Periya Pandivirichaan and Sinna Pandivirichaan towards Madhu through the Madhu sanctuary jungle terrain.

Even as the security forces intensified military efforts the LTTE also changed tactics. The Tigers began setting up positions inside the Madhu Church sanctuary jungle areas. The LTTE also came into the outer precincts of the Church. The Tigers were not inside the Church or Church compound but began using the Church camping area which technically is classified as Church precincts. This is more than 70 acres in extent.

When Church authorities objected, the LTTE said: “Ask the Army not to proceed further in this direction. We will go away.” The security forces in turn insisted that the LTTE move away first with their artillery and mortars. Both sides were intransigent. Thus Madhu Church environs got militarised. Fighting escalated and shells began raining. Shells began falling inside Madhu Church precincts and camping areas for pilgrims. Shells fell on the clergy quarters, outer premises of the Church, a drinking water well, etc. The Church did not suffer a direct hit but window panes cracked due to explosion impact. A barrage of shells landed on the outlying road to Palampitty.

All civilians evacuated. The skeleton staff took refuge in bunkers, popping out during lulls, to engage in evacuation work. With the LTTE moving into the Madhu Church vicinity and the security forces advancing, Church authorities realised that Madhu Church was going to be directly caught up in fierce fighting. This prompted them to leave.

Even as the Madhu Church precincts became increasingly vulnerable, charges and counter – charges began flying. The LTTE accused the security forces of making war on sacred ground and charged that Army shells were falling inside Church premises. The Army denied the charges and pointed the finger back at the LTTE. The Tigers were accused of using Church premises as a mortar launching pad. These charges in turn were vehemently denied by the LTTE.


The Bishop’s appeal

Bishop Rayappu Joseph who had been unsuccessfully imploring both sides to make Madhu a peace zone now made a last-ditch effort to prevent impending disaster and preserve Church sanctity and safety. He issued a public appeal on Tuesday 1 April 2008 urging that both sides keep the Church and vicinity as a peace zone. Excerpts from the Bishop’s appeal to protect the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu are as follows:

“The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is a much respected and venerated Shrine to Catholics all over Sri Lanka. For more than 400 years Catholics and as well as non-Catholics have gathered around Our Lady of Madhu as a unique Shrine that has served the spiritual needs of Sri Lankans from different walks of life, different ethnicities, different religions and different areas of the country. For more than two decades, in the midst of the conflict and mass displacement, Madhu Shrine also served as a place of refuge for all affected people. Madhu Shrine has been recognised locally and internationally as a ‘safe haven’ and ‘place of refuge’ for people fleeing in the face of war and destruction.

“The Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, the Bishop and the priests of Diocese of Mannar have been appealing to the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army to refrain from using the area gazetted as the Madhu Church Reservation under the ‘Pilgrimage Ordinance’ in 1982 for military and political purposes and to respect its sacred and humanitarian nature. Appeals have been made to the President of Sri Lanka to declare the Madhu Shrine as a ‘Zone of Peace’ through a special gazette notification in order to ensure that the Shrine can continue to serve as a religious and humanitarian space.

“Today, as military operations are taking place very close to the Shrine, we are compelled to make an urgent appeal to both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to respect the Madhu Shrine and the area mentioned above as a Zone of Peace, keep away from the Shrine areas and to ensure that the area remains completely and solely under the administration of the Church. At this crucially difficult juncture, we appeal to all Catholics, all Sri Lankans, particularly those who have a deep sense of belonging and devotion to Our Lady of Madhu as well as all religious leaders and the International community to join in our efforts to safeguard the sacred and humanitarian character of this very special place of worship.”


Relocation of the sacred statue

Bishop Rayappu’s fervent efforts were no match for the cruel logic of war which gathered momentum. Conflict in the Madhu area intensified. Escalating military activity meant that the Church could in the line of direct fire soon. In that context damage to the Church was a strong possibility.

The greatest treasure of Madhu was the sacred statue of Mother Mary and baby Jesus. The risk of the statue being damaged was very much there. Thus the painful decision to re-locate the statue was taken. Earlier it was planned to bring the statue to St. Sebastian’s Cathedral in Mannar. But the LTTE objected as it was in a Government controlled area. The Tigers wanted the statue to be brought to the Tiger heartland of Mullaitivu District. Church authorities refused. After heated arguments there was a compromise and the statue was taken to Thevanpitty adjacent to Mulangaavil in LTTE-controlled territory.

The following paragraphs are excerpted from what I wrote then in The Nation newspaper about the relocation of the statue:

“The benign presence of ‘Madhu Maadhaa’ (Our Lady of Madhu) or ‘Sebamaalai Maadhaa’ (Our Lady of the Rosary) had made Church precincts and environs an oasis of refuge and haven of peace in the past. Yet, in what was perhaps an illustrative indictment of the escalating war, the sacred statue of Our Lady of Madhu and baby Jesus joined the ranks of those internally displaced by the war in Sri Lanka.

“Four Catholic priests, Fr. S. Emilianuspillai, Fr. A. Gnanapragasam, Fr. E. Sebamalai and Fr. T. Sahayanathan, arrived in a white motor vehicle at the premises of St. Xavier’s Church in Thevanpitty on Thursday 3 April. They brought with them the sacred statue from the Church in Madhu. It is unclear at present whether the statue would be kept indefinitely at St. Xavier’s Church or taken to another safer place in the near future.

“As for now the internally displaced ‘Maadhaa’ (Mother) statue will remain at the Church in Thevanpittty. Thevanpitty adjoins Mulangaavil along the Mannar-Pooneryn road. Technically Mulangaavil falls under Kilinochchi District though it is on the border of Mannar District. A large number of displaced Tamil Catholics from Mannar District have sought refuge in Mulangaavil and adjacent areas. Now the Marian deity herself has been compelled to follow in the footsteps of her followers and join the fellowship of the displaced.

“It was indeed a sad moment to listen to the voice of Bishop Rayappu as he stated sorrowfully over the BBC Tamil service ‘Thamilosai’ that the statue was being relocated and that Our Lady of Madhu had become a refugee in her own land. It was for Bishop Rayappu Joseph a personal tragedy as the much misunderstood and much-maligned prelate had struggled very hard to prevent this disaster. Bishop Rayappu had tried hard in the past to preserve and maintain the sanctity of Madhu. He wanted to avoid military action that would damage the Church. But now like Job of the Old Testament, the thing that he had greatly feared had come upon him.”

The circumstances in which Madhu was caught up in the conflict resulting in the statue of Our Lady of Madhu joining the fellowship of the displaced was chronicled here again to denote the difficult predicament faced by Bishop Rayappu Joseph during the war. He was criticised unfairly as an agent of the LTTE for authorising the transportation of the blessed statue to Thevanpitty in Tiger-controlled territory. Many feared that the sacred statue was lost forever. Mercifully that never happened.

The day of light dawned after the night of darkness. The holy statue of Our Lady of Madhu did return to her home again. The terrible war ended and an uneasy peace emerged. Normalcy returned gradually to Madhu. It was with immense joy that Bishop Rayappu Joseph welcomed Pope Francis to Madhu in January 2015. The Bishop had been vindicated at last.


He fought the good fight and kept the faith

There are many, many experiences and events during Bishop Rayappu Joseph’s lengthy record of service that are worthy of detailed narration. However, I have devoted much of this column to focus on the Madhu Church crisis alone in a bid to highlight the extremely difficult environment and times in which Rayappu Joseph discharged his duties as the Catholic Bishop of Mannar diocese. The Madhu incident is an illustrative example of the unenviable situation faced by Bishop Rayappu Joseph and the courage shown by him to do what he felt was right in the sight of the almighty.

Bishop Joseph celebrated his 75th birth anniversary on 16 April 2015. Thereby he reached the retiring age of 75 for a Catholic Bishop. A news report from the Vatican Information Service (VIS) datelined 14 January 2016 stated that His Holiness Pope Francis has accepted the resignation presented by Bishop Rayappu Joseph upon reaching the age limit, from the pastoral care of the diocese of Mannar.

Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph entered a state of blissful retirement after many years of dedicated service to God, Church and Humanity. He took up residence as Emeritus Bishop in a section of Bishop’s House, Mannar. Even as the retired Bishop reflected on his life and times, he received a steady stream of visitors ranging from simple parishioners to self-serving politicians over the years.

Due to failing health, he was taken early this year to the Holy Cross Health and Wellbeing centre run by the Catholic Church in Colombothurai, Jaffna. He passed away peacefully in the early hours of the morning on 1 April 2021.

The Sri Lankan Tamil people in general and Catholics in particular were deeply saddened by his loss. There was spontaneous grief and widespread mourning. Having served as Bishop for over two decades in Mannar, the prelate was immensely popular with his flock and fellow shepherds. Moreover the outspoken Bishop had endeared himself to the Tamil people at large by speaking out courageously on issues affecting the community.

The words of St. Paul (2.Timothy 4.7) – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” – serve as a fitting epitaph to Most Rev. Rayappu Joseph.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at )

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