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The Continuing Harassment of Bishop Rayappu Joseph
And his Roman Catholic clergy in Mannar, Sri Lanka
by Brian Senewiratne, Brisbane, Australia, June 10, 2012
In an extensive article, now expanded into a booklet and sent to the Pope, and others, I drew attention to the threats to Bishop Rayappu Joseph, the (Tamil) Roman Catholic Bishop of Mannar, members of his clergy (Tamils), members of (Tamil) ‘Civil Society’, and even Sinhalese human rights activists and journalists in the Sinhalese South, by the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and some of his very violent Ministers.
The ‘crime’ committed by Bishop Joseph
For those who have not read the earlier article, I will summarise the reasons why Bishop Joseph and his Roman Catholic clergy in Mannar have been targeted. What have they done?
As one of his clergy (Fr Jeyabalan Croos), in an appeal to the local people has put it, “…the Bishop of Mannar who in the spirit of the Prophets of the Bible and following the footsteps of our Great Master Jesus Christ acted as the “voice of the voiceless” people of Mannar and in the whole of North and East, and also in the whole island of Sri Lanka.”
He is not only the leader of the Catholic diocese in Mannar, but a
humanitarian, which is why his ‘elimination’ will affect us all.
2. Bishop Joseph, his clergy and members of ‘civil society’ have committed four ‘crimes’, in the eyes of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL).
I have dealt with these in detail in my earlier publication. Here is a summary:
1. LLRC Submission
Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW) and International Crisis Group (ICG), had refused to attend the LLRC stating, “There is little point in appearing before a fundamentally flawed commission. The Commission is nothing more than a cynical attempt by Sri Lanka to avoid serious inquiry that would bring genuine accountability” . This was followed a scathing 60-page document by AI, “When will they get Justice? Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ , stating that it was “fundamentally flawed”.
Despite this, Bishop Joseph and his fellow clergy decided to appear before this flawed Commission to clearly set out the problems facing the Tamil people – which is more than what their members of Parliament did.
LLRC: Submission by the Catholic Diocese of Mannar
It is a crucially important Submission which set out in detail what the people in the North and East were going through behind the closed and censored doors of Sri Lanka. What was more, they made constructive suggestions as to what needed to be done.
The Submission opened with:
Driving the point home, it went on:
This is the only document ever published that gives the actual number of people who are unaccounted for after the war -a staggering 146,679.
(This figure of 146,679 missing people was later taken up by the CID, the Criminal Investigation Department of the Sri Lankan Police, in a clear attempt to intimidate the Bishop and his clergy).
2. Contacting the US State Department officials visiting Sri Lanka
In February 2012, the US State Department sent two officials to Sri Lanka to inform the Rajapaksa government that the US intended to submit a Resolution on Sri Lanka at the upcoming 19th Session of the UN HRC (27 February – 23 March 2012).
19 Tamils, non-politicians, (“Civil Society”), including Bishop Rayappu Joseph, immediately sent a letter to them (10 February 2012). It is a concise and precise letter written by people with a genuine concern for the Tamil people, and the expectations (and responsibilities) of the UN Human Rights Council.
It started with:
It ended with:
3. UN HRC Submission
On 1st March 2012, 31 Christian clergy in North Sri Lanka headed by Bishop Rayappu Joseph, made a direct Submission to the 19th Session of the UN HRC:-
4. UNHRC – Response of Civil Society
On 27 February, 2012, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe Head of the Sri Lankan delegation, addressed the UN HRC. Much of what he said were half-truths, untruths or downright lies.
Members of ‘Civil Society’, which included Bishop Joseph, responded immediately –
“Response by Civil Society” (29 February, 2012). This is so important that it has been reproduced in full in Appendix 2 in my earlier publication on the threats to Bishop Joseph. Here are the opening paragraphs :-
The ‘table’ referred to is a point by point response to the absolute untruths of the Sri Lankan government. I know of no better response to the downright lies of the GoSL. It clearly documents the reality of life in the Tamil areas, rather than the fiction propagated by the GoSL.
This too, is reproduced in full in my earlier publication.
JHU – the political party of Buddhist monks
An open threat came from the party of the Buddhist monks – Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Government coalition partner, that accused Bishop Joseph of aspiring to become the Cardinal of Tamil Eelam (Independent Tamil State), and that he should be arrested and prosecuted.
In a press release, JHU said that “Rev Rayappu Joseph, the Bishop of Mannar, who requests the United Nations Organization that an investigation should be launched regarding the supposed war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka, should be immediately produced before court, as it is a violation of the constitution of this country.
Minister Mervyn Silva
Mervyn Silva, President Rajapaksa’s Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs, is a very violent person, operating with his ‘private army’ of goons and gangsters.
At a public meeting on 23 March 2012, in Kiribathgoda, a suburb of Colombo, Minister Silva said the he will “break the bones” of those who supported the US Memorandum on Sri Lanka. He added that he would do it himself, boasting that he had done it before to (Sinhalese) journalists.
In what is clearly a death threat, Minister Silva said that past kings would execute those acting against the country, and that, “The time has come now to do what the kings did then”.
Minister Silva, who functions with a band of armed hooligans, murderers and underworld characters, not only threatens but carries out his threats. As such, his threat cannot be taken lightly.
I do not know whether Bishop Joseph, his clergy and members of ‘Civil Society’ in the North are within the reach of Minister Silva and his goons. However, if they come to Colombo, even if invited to do so, and Mervyn Silva and his goons know about it, they will most certainly be at risk.
A Government Minister in Parliament
In early May, 2012, a Cabinet Minister in Rajapaksa’s government, Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Industry and Commerce, a Muslim, criticised Bishop Joseph, accusing him of ‘anti-Muslim activity’ in the Sannar area of Mannar District. The Minister is the leader of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) which is a constituent member of President Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government.
Shockingly, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the elected representatives of the Tamil people in Parliament, did not demand that the Minister tables the necessary evidence to document what he said, or unconditionally withdraws what he said and apologises to the Bishop for what, in the absence of such evidence, is defamation.
The Government reaction
To date, there has been no condemnation by President Rajapaksa or by any member of his government, of these outrageous threats by Ministers in the Government to step outside the law, even into criminality. Nor has there been any request to Minister Bathiudeen for evidence to support his defamatory claims.
Action taken against Bishop Rayappu Joseph and his clergy
Criminal Investigation Officers ‘visit’ Bishop Joseph
The Senior Superintendent of Mannar Police personally met the Bishop to inform him of the decision from his superiors in Colombo to send two Police officers from the CID in Colombo to ‘see’ Bishop Joseph regarding his Submission to the UN HRC.
On 8 May 2012, two CID officers came to Mannar to ‘interview’ Bishop Joseph. I gather they were both Muslims, not that it mattered – except that the Cabinet Minister who slandered Bishop Joseph is also a Muslim. One does not need to be a genius to work out who was instrumental in sending the CID to ‘see’ Bishop Joseph.
They questioned him on his Submission to the LLRC regarding the ‘disappearance’ of 146,679 people during the last stages of the war in the period 2008-2009. Bishop Joseph told the police officers that he had submitted to the LLRC whatever documents he had in his possession. Incredibly, the police officers said that they had no access to the LLRC documents. Consider this; here were two police offices from Police headquarters in Colombo, who could not access the LLRC documents which I, a layman, can do from Australia!
They asked the Bishop if he personally knew any of the missing persons. The Bishop said that a Priest was among the missing, but that his concern was for all those who were missing.
The Bishop rightly wondered why the Police had to question him when the information they sought was available with the Government Agents, Divisional Secretaries and the ‘Grama Niladaris’ (local government village community leaders), in the Tamil provinces, who would have the population figures for the area (Vanni) before and after the war. This is from where he got the figures to make the claims he did.
Several Catholic priests were with the Bishop during the questioning. The Police officers who questioned the Bishop, got his signature and stamp. They also took the names and addresses of all those of all those present, and left.
This is clearly intimidation. It is despite the direction of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, stating on 23 March 2012, at the close of the 19th Session of the UN HRC, that there must be no reprisals against Sri Lanka’s human rights defenders after the adoption of the Resolution.
Protest in the Mannar area.
Sections of the Catholic clergy and laity in Mannar vehemently objected to the speech in Parliament by Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, and planned to organize a public solidarity event on Sunday 27 May 2012, in the premises of St Sebastian Church, Mannar, to express solidarity and support for Bishop Rayappu Joseph.
It was to express appreciation for the Bishop’s role for many years as a “voice for voiceless” victims of war, especially the Tamils, express concern and call to ensure his physical safety and condemn false and malicious allegations made against him both in Parliament and the Government-controlled media .
Invitation to the public to attend
Fr. Jeyabalan Croos, St Anne’s Church, Vankalai, Mannar, issued an “Invitation” to the public to attend the 27th May event in St Sebastian’s Church.
The ‘Invitation’ set out the background for the meeting:
Police charge the Catholic clergy
Before the planned event occurred, the Mannar police intervened and sought a Court order prohibiting the demonstration and the meeting. It was admitted by the Police that they were acting on instructions of the Cabinet Minister concerned.
The Police filed a case against five priests, saying that they are organizing a Protest March which would disturb traffic along a main road, might burn effigies of ministers and would cause tension and disharmony between the Catholics and Muslims living in Mannar.
It was clearly an attempt to intimidate organizers and participants of the planned public event.
The five Catholic priests were summoned by the Police to appear in the Mannar District Court on 26 May 2012.
In the courts, it was stated by the lawyers of the defendants that no such protest march was planned by the said priests. They and other Priests had announced in their Churches that a Prayer Session would be held inside the Church premises of St. Sebastian’s Church, Mannar, after which a Resolution of Protest would be made against a particular minister who had spoken in the parliament defaming Bishop Joseph.
The verdict was given by the District Judge Hon. A. Judeson that the Court had no authority to stop a religious prayer session to be held inside the Church compound and also any meeting afterwards done in a peaceful manner. However, the court prevented public marches along the streets.
The 27th May 2012 event in St Sebastian’s Church.
More than 5,000 people from Christian, Hindu and Islam faiths, braving the heavy military and police presence in Mannar, came for the meeting. A Resolution in defence of Bishop Rayappu Joseph was passed.
A senior Muslim journalist who participated and spoke in support of Bishop Joseph was assaulted by a prominent supporter of Minister Bathiudeen. The journalist had to be hospitalized because of the injuries sustained in the assault.
This is the current situation in the Tamil North and East. Not even a Prayer session, or a peaceful meeting even in a Church premise can be held without Police intervention, being dragged to Court and even being subjected to assault by goons who support the Government.
As Fr Jeyabalan Croos pointed out in his ‘Invitation’,
It is a serious violation of the Freedom of Assembly, guaranteed in the Sri Lankan Constitution which I will refer to.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA)
The TNA are the elected representatives of the Tamil people in the North and East. It is of interest to look at the stance and actions taken by the TNA when their clergy were hauled before a Court in Mannar and charged by the Police on a patently absurd charge. After all, the Leader of the TNA, R.Sampanthan, is a lawyer. The TNA nominated MP, M.A. Sumanthiran, who seems to be travelling salesman for the TNA, is a lawyer. I would have expected them to be at the forefront in the defence of the five priests. Let alone be at the forefront, they was nowhere to be seen! “Missing in action”.
With more than 5,000 people who attended the 27th May, 2012 event in St Sebastian’s Church, Mannar, to express support and solidarity with Bishop Rayappu Joseph, one would have expected the TNA leadership to have been there. There is no evidence that they were. Again they were “Missing in Action”.
So was the situation in Geneva at the 19th Session of the UN HRC meeting when action on Sri Lanka was being taken up. One would have expected them to be very much there, apprising the delegates of the plight of the Tamil people in the North and East and the disastrous humanitarian situation which demanded immediate international action. The TNA was (again) “Missing in Action”.
Escaped to Norway
I have had a number of emails to check on the credibility of a story in circulation that Bishop Rayappu Joseph had ‘escaped’ to Norway, and that the Sri Lankan government had ‘assisted him’ in this.
I am well aware that this is untrue and that Bishop Joseph is in Mannar. However, I am concerned about these stories given what has happened in the past.
I refer to the fate of another Roman Catholic priest in Mannar, Fr Mary Bastian. He was abducted on January 5th, 1985, by the Armed Forces, tortured and murdered. The body was clandestinely burnt. Several witnesses saw the Priest being taken away by soldiers. Pope John Paul had a special prayer for the departed soul of Fr Bastian.
Lalith Athulathmudali, the then President J.R. Jayawardene’s Minister of National Security (or rather, ‘Insecurity’), in typical Goebellian style, completely denied that the murder had occurred, adding insult to injury by tarnishing the dead priest’s reputation. He claimed that Fr Bastian had escaped to India and was very much alive in Tamil Nadu.
Many Sinhalese Catholic priests in the South collaborated in this cover up. The most serious collaborator was Rev Oswald Gomis, later appointed the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo. Rev Gomis, the government propagandist, with the tacit consent of the then Archbishop of Colombo, Nicholas Marcus Fernando, wrote to the Vatican that Fr Bastian was alive and well in India.
The Pope retracted his earlier statement – something that is unknown. The Vatican said that the Pope had erred in praying for Fr Bastian’s departed soul and that “joyfully” he was alive.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the priest was dead, Catholics did not push the issue, since it would have eroded the Pope’s credibility even further. With the Pope’s infallibility already dented, the faithful decided to let it pass. The Pope’s infallibility was undermined by Roman Catholic priests in the Sinhalese South cooperating with the Government - and lying.
History has a habit of repeating itself. I hope that the claimed ‘escape’ of Bishop Joseph to Norway’ is not going to be a repetition of the ‘escape’ of Fr Bastian to India. There is a worrying possibility that Bishop Joseph will ‘escape’ in a ‘white van’, never to be seen again. The GoSL is likely to ‘assist’ in such an ‘escape’, indeed organise and conduct it.
Violation of the Sri Lankan Constitution
What President Rajapaksa and his government have done to the Catholic priests in Mannar is a violation of Constitution.
Chapter 3 Fundamental Rights
Freedom of Speech, assembly, association, movement etc
Section 14. Every citizen is entitled to -
(a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication;
(b) the freedom of peaceful assembly;
(c) the freedom of association;
(e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching.
The Mannar Police trying to stop the event (meeting) on 27th May 2012 in St Sebastian’s Church, Mannar, is a violation of Chapter 3, Section 14 (a),(b),(c) and (e). It was a peaceful assembly that was to take place, it was by a group who were being prevented from ‘association’, it was a ‘Prayer meeting’ which was a ‘belief in worship’.
This is a matter which will have to be legally challenged. The problem, of course, is that the Judicial system in Sri Lanka is under the heel of President Rajapaksa, and the ‘Rule of Law’ does not apply, nor do ‘Violations of the Constitution’.
Such are the problems in Sri Lanka under an absolute ruler, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. with sweeping powers and no accountability or responsibility even to Parliament, The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, as it is called, is neither ‘Democratic’ nor ‘Socialist’ but a Fascist dictatorship, or blacker still, a Totalitarian tyranny under the absolute rule of a despot.
All that can be done is that the International community, including the Pope, should be kept informed of what goes on behind the closed and censored doors of Sri Lanka. Should you wish to register your protest, here are the Sri Lankan authorities and those in the Vatican:
President Mahinda Rajapaksa
150 Galle Rd
His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI PP.
His Eminence Cardinal Tarciso Bertone
Secretary of State of the Holy See
(address the same as for the Pope)
Note. The Secretary of State is effectively the Prime Minister.
He deals with most Foreign Affairs matters. `
Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke
William Joseph Cardinal Levada.
Archbishop Raymond Leo Burke
Minister Rishad Bathiudeen
Minister of Industry and Commerce
73/1 Galle Rd
phone 011 2435248
fax 011 2390885
MA(Cantab), MD (Lond), FRCP (Lond), FRACP
Brisbane, Australia 4122
tel +61 7 44496118
mob +61 419335334