For Mannar Bishop, Joseph Vaz led John Paul II and Francis to Sri Lanka

At the 2014 AsiaNews International Symposium, Mgr Rayappu Joseph talks about the challenges and work of the Catholic Church in his country. Francis will be the first pope to visit the Tamil North, which has suffered 30 years of civil war. He insists on the need to “overcome tensions and polarisation between different communities”.

Mannar Bishop Rt. Rev. Rayappu JosephVatican City (AsiaNews) – John Paul II’s visit in 1995 and Francis’ visit in 2015 are linked by a “blessed coincidence,” embodied by the figure of Fr Joseph Vaz “who brought the Catholic faith to Sri Lanka and proclaimed the Word of God in defiance of persecution under Dutch rule,” said Mgr Rayappu Joseph, bishop of Mannar.

Scheduled to be one of the speakers at the 2014 AsiaNews International Symposium on the Mission in Asia: from Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis, the bishop had to back out at the last moment for health reasons. He was represented however by one of his priests who delivered the speech he had prepared for the Symposium.

Although he was recovering himself from an injury, “John Paul II beatified the Apostle of Sri Lanka,” the prelate said. “Now, next January, Pope Francis will come to our island to celebrate his canonisation.” This is a blessing for the country’s Catholics, who “already consider Fr Vaz a saint.”

For Mgr Joseph, Pope Francis’ visit is doubly important because he “will be the first pope to set foot in northern Sri Lanka [where the civil war raged until 2009] where he will meet the Tamil population.”

Although Buddhism is the country’s largest religion (69.3 per cent), Christians (mostly Catholics) account for 7.4 per cent of the total. In the Diocese of Mannar, “Tamils are the majority but the district is also the only one in Sri Lanka where Catholics are the largest group with 32 per cent.”

Sadly, “the area and its people were deeply affected by the war and the following five years.” Mgr Joseph said. In fact, in 2009, Sri Lanka’s 35-year civil war ended with the government’s victory over Tamil Tiger rebels who had embarked on an armed struggle to set up an independent state in the northeast part of the island nation.

Although five years have passed since the end of the conflict, “Tamils in the north are still under martial law,” the bishop of Mannar said, and “The military is present in every aspect of life,” not only “monitoring religious ceremonies, social events, educational development, economic activity and tourism” but also causing “sexual abuse, disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture.”

Faced with such a complex situation, the Catholic Church is a leading supporter of the local population. “During the war,” Mgr Joseph noted, “priests in Mannar and Jaffna remained in the areas most affected by the war even though they had a chance to go anywhere else.”

Today, the clergy, especially in the Northeast, are committed to “defending the rights of our people, together with truth and justice,” acting on behalf of locals vis-à-vis the authorities.

Several priests from the dioceses of Jaffna and Mannar were killed or “disappeared” during the civil war, clergymen like Fr Mary Bastian who was killed in church (1985, Mannar); Fr Jim Brown who disappeared without a trace (2006, Jaffna); Fr Nicholaspilai Packiyaranjith who was torn apart by a mine (2007, Mannar); and Fr M.X. Karunaratnam who was killed as was returning to his parish (2008, Mannar).

In addition, the bishop of Mannar said, the Church strives to “work with all ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka to overcome tensions and polarisation between different communities. Some of our allies in the area of justice, human rights, and humanitarian work are Sinhalese and non-Christian.”