The Historic Mannar and its Contemporary Christian Witness: A Reading from the South

Bishop Rayappu Joseph maintained a cordial relationship with the government, the army personnel as well as the LTTE leadership. With such wide range of cordiality not without hard encounters he managed extend his find solace and immediate welfare as much as he could to the suffering masses, casting a deeply pastoral care to most marginalized.

by Uswatakiyawa Susil Hettiarachchi

After centuries of colonial domination during which time the history tells us that ‘the brave 600 -700 people of Mannar gave up their lives as formidable witness to their faith and we remember them with honour as ‘Martyrs of Mannar as the diocese of Mannar celebrates the 40thanniversary of its establishment. 

Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948 as a result of a collective collaborative participation of all the ethnic and religious groups may be there was a common objective as well as being inspired by the wave of freedom and sense of liberty gushing in the neighboring India. But the leaders of the majority community were not wise enough and lacked even courage in paving the future path of national integration, in the national restructuring process as a nation. India, considered as our elder sister had shown her wisdom and foresight in creating an independent nation integrating the multi ethnic, multi linguistic and multi religious assuring coexistence and harmony even though there have been instances of lapse of that pristine objective of the freedom hard won.

The unity within diversity is proclaimed when all the citizens break their ethnic, linguistic, and  religious and cultural barriers proclaiming in one voice “We are Indians” – dress like Indian, eat like Indian, ‘a cutting edge nativeness’ that glued the ‘Bharata Matha’ even though Pakistan was created and later Bangladesh as states.Compared to Indian  we in a small country only with four major religious traditions and four major ethnic groups have failed to identify ourselves as a one nation and proclaim “We are Sri Lankans”. Something somewhere, it looks like we have missed, and many post mortems have been executed but we must now forge ahead for fresh thinking and for a better nation. 

This specific national failure was further derailed in the late 1950s, then leading such policies to severe and willful discrimination of minorities on the basis of ethnicity and religion. Several communities felt for the first time in decades that they were being treated differently, among them were the burghers and subsequently their decisive exodus into Australia and several other European countries. Other communities also felt the same and underwent instances of violence, bloodshed with a sense of loss in their own country.  These historical circumstances led to ethnic mistrust, fear and suspicion amongst the different ethnic communities and led to serious politicization. It indeed became Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim politics as one reads history of grievance campaigns by all three groups, some  as a consequence of the loss of cohesion as an entity of one nation, the responded violently as we read history culminating in the callous Easter attacks of 21/4 atrocities. Tamil speaking community had to face not only untold suffering but also to compensate with their lives at different times in our post independence history.  The volcanic eruption of violence within the Sri Lankan society in 1971, 1988/89 with youth insurrectionsin the South as well as the civil war waged in the North East have resulted in  a fractured society growing in ethnic debates and in a cold war of mistrust and suspicion leading to an impasse in authentic reconciliation among communities.

The protracted war that sprung in the North East has to be seen as one that surpassed beyond the socio economic oppression.  It is to be seen as a struggle of the Tamil youth to protect their identity and aspire for greater autonomy as community, though ended in a bloody end of war. The war came to a but the struggle seems to continue which is a social phenomenon in such struggle and conflicts. 

As the country was moving towards anarchy the Holy Sea, Vatican Rome began to pay her attention to the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka considering its critical situation. Based on a scientific study of the situation in the North the authorities of the Holy Sea, identified the need for a new episcopacy for the Northern region in order to extend her pastoral care of the innocent victims of the war. The new diocese was named the diocese of Mannar included the administrative districts of Vauvniya and Mannar which was timely and welcomed. People of Mannar felt that their own identity out of the peninsula based administration in the diocese of Jaffna. Between the two districts Mannar became the district with a majority population of Catholics and Christians. The Catholic community in Mannar as noted earlier was a community with a history of terrifying persecutions during the Cankili I rule (1544)and the Colonial Dutch rule in the 16th century.  Witnessing their faith and identity men and women of Mannar have shed their blood to their faith and integrity to the newly embraced tradition. It is said that the blood of the heroic men and women have seeped into the soil of Mannar, and this land of martyrsis honored and remembered as a “Land of Resurrection” – an Easter people – people of hope. Similarly, it is in Vankalai and Murunkan where Fr.Mary Bastian and a Methodist pastor Rev.George Jayarajasinghem were killed in 1985 in their struggle for the freedom and justice on behalf for their people. It is providential that the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, the spiritual centre and the revered place of pilgrimage of both the Northern and Southern Christians with their popular religiosity is also part of the land of Mannar. Prior to the naming of the new diocese by the then pope John Paul II the region had been under the administration of the diocese of Jaffna ever since the Northern vicariate declared (1848) was  made into a diocese (1886).

With the declaration of the new diocese of Mannar Fr.Thomas  Soundaranayagam of the diocese of Jaffna was appointed as its first bishop.  In July 1981 the new bishop assumed his pastoral responsibility in the presence of His Grace,the then Archbishop of Colombo Rev. Dr. Nicholas Marcus Fernando and His Lordship  Rev.Dr. J. B. Diogupillai,  the then Bishop of Jaffna.

The new bishop invariably had to shoulder his episcopal responsibility in an extremely uncertain environment listening to the agonizing cries of his people amidst the war hovering over the whole of the North province and he diligently went in search of the helpless victims of the war, continuing his pastoral mission under those trying circumstances between vicious cycles of violence.

A Man to Confront Historian Mannar

“God gives us men, the time demands strong minds, great hearts, a true faith and a willing spirit” (J.G. Halland).

The Bishops, the Priests and the clergy of the Northern and Eastern regions had to face completely different challenges, difficulties and risky situations which no other Bishops and Priests of the other diocese had to face. Amidst these threatening risks it was the Bishop and the priests of Mannar diocese who had faced the most critical challenge, especially when the war was raging in the precincts of the Madhu shrine as the area was also infested with a well grown jungle with less or no human encounter for years.

With the dawn of the birthday commemoration of our Blessed Mother Mary on 8th September 1985, the people from the North and Wanni began to draw towards Madhu Shrine, and created as if an oasis amidst turbulence. The mothers fleeing in the search of refuge were like the Mother Mary carrying her son fleeing to Egypt from the political vengeance and brutality and cruelty of Herod.

As the war was ravaging, the suffering victims had to flee from their homes, abandoning all their belongings and their livelihood seeking refuge in the Madhu Shrine.  The Bishop of Mannar and priests had to face the critical challenge of protecting and securing the life of all helpless innocent victims of the war. 

The leaderless people abandoned by the civil administration and   political leaders of the North and the South, then armed groups fighting within and without were also challenged by Bishop Rayappu Joseph as a man of stern integrity. For them Bishop Rayappu was as if God’s gracious response to cries of the people suffering and were placating for divine for intervention in hopelessness. They saw him as their pastor and protector in whom they could rest their trust amidst the most despairing context and wont on destruction of their future. 

"For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back.

In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer.

"To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.

Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed," says the LORD, who has compassion on you.I will gather my people ….(Is. 54:7,8 &10) (for the people Bishop Rayappu Joseph portrayed God’s tenderness love and mercy .)

The embodiment of God’s love and mercy for the suffering victims of war humbly expressed in the person of Bishop Rayappu who was always to have mercy and everlasting love for his people. The gracious personality of the Bishop Rayappu reminded a beacon of light amidst darkness, steadfastly standing before all threats and misunderstanding both among friends and foe.

The eyes of thousands of war refugees were focused on the emergence of the prophets of our time. On their faces were written ‘the pleading’. Bring us to the shore of justice and peace, securing us from the turbulent ocean of suffering and bloodshed.

I like to related what happened on the day of the Episcopal consecration of Rev.Fr. Rayappu Joseph. The most heartening scene at the side main isle of the church was Fr. Rayappu’s mother devotedly witnessing her son’s greatest day of being consecrated at the altar to be a prophet and a shepherd of the people of God in the diocese of Manner.

As a priest he had always had been prophetic, daring in most difficult events and moments.  In his priestly mission he had been always strongly opposed to the caste system rampant in the Tamil society. He was in solidarity with every person who was against dehumanizing caste system that has even prevailed among the Christians. He loved and respected every one irrespective of his or her caste. Thus as a priest he had already won the love and respect of people and especially those who had been down trodden and socially marginalized. This is why at the consecration ceremony, the “song of blessing’ was sung by the children who had been expelled from their homes due to the hostilities of the two armed groups that had among them fought bitter battles for political supremacy.

The first act of this fearless man was to meet Ganesh the leader of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Mannar area. He attempted to persuade Ganesh on the role of grassroots level activistson the importance of making the leaders engaged in the struggle aware of the suffering of the people. He also pleaded to free the area where our divine mother was present (area of Madhu Shrine) by making as a peace zone without the activities of any armed group.

He as a responsible leader of the community who had practically comprehended the liberation struggle and its nature made efforts to explain matters to the LTTE leadership within the context of the protracted war. Bishop Rayappu Joseph maintained a cordial relationship with the government, the army personnel as well as the LTTE leadership. With such wide range of cordiality not without hard encounters he managed extend his find solace and immediate welfare as much as he could to the suffering masses, casting a deeply pastoral care to most marginalized.

The continuous flow of war victims to the Madhu Shrine created a demanding challenge to the Bishop to provide protection and securing the life of the people with warring factions sharing the neighboring hideouts for their clandestine operations leading to a callous and wont on violence.  The refugee crisis began to be critical   and Rev.Fr. S.Emillianuspillai, the then assistant administrator of Madhu offered timely assistance to the Bishop. Together both of them developed a collaborative relation in order to maintain a secure environment for the refugees with courage and fortitude. When the Madhu area was targeted by armed forces on one side and LTTE cadres on the other side, UN based refugee services to the Madhu refugees were disrupted immensely. Bishop Rayappu Joseph as a person of indomitable courage stood fearlessly on behalf of the suffering of the people, with his pen in his hand initiated his struggle of writing to the President and all other relevant officers in the public administration. He made aware of the prevailing critical situation of the refugees. Consequently the relief services of the UN were resumed at the Madhu refugee camp. He tried to spend more time at the Madhu Shrine as the situation was volatile, he himself becoming a refugee – a great witness to the Gospel he preached perhaps. His Bishops presence at the ‘refugee camp of Madhu’ was thought to be a God’s blessing to those who had lost almost everything, to lay their heads on the grounds for a peaceful sleep. 

This mature man was in constant fear of the safety of the historical statue of Our Divine Mother preciously honoured by the people of the North and the South, a symbol of ethnic unity which neither the Southern not the Northern Christians could ever achieve even though the Christians community were both Sinhala and Tamil. One would wonder what makes ethnicity stronger than other leanings of faith and religious identity.

What worried him perhaps was what would prevent the destruction of a ‘wooden statue’ in comparison with the mindless act that destroyed the Jaffna public library, the precious store of knowledge for the generations to come and the prestigious monument of wisdom. But in a corner of his heart he felt that Jesus who defeated death would not allow any army to harm the miraculous statue of His Mother.

The Northern war terrorized the South too, with eruption of hostilities at different times.  The fear and the suffering of the Sinhala people in the South was a fact that saddened the Bishop gravely and this made him to suffer as he himself felt helpless. Therefore he constantly raised his voice against the unjust war.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph with steadfast faith in Mother Mary after 11 years invited people from the North and South to the Madhu Shrine to make an appeal to the warring groups engaged in the war.  On the 13th March 1995 the parliamentarians Jeyaraj  Fernandopulle, Milroy Fernando, Felix Perera and Niel Rupasinghe, Jayalath Jayawardene arrived at the Madhu Shrine with a crowd of  more than 2500 people from the South. Meanwhile the LTTE and other armed groups arrived with more than 5000 people from North and the Wanni areas.  Raising their hands altogether to heaven pleading to make the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga to see to end the protracted war and also to bring a permanent solution to the national question.

The people who lined up on both sides to bidfarewell to the participants from the South exclaimed “Yuddam Wanadam” “Yuddam Wanadam” .

The pragmatic man of Mannar

Born on the island of Delft in the Northern peninsula Bishop Rayappu was a pragmatic pastor. He did not hesitate to recognize and give due respect to the valiant industrious farmers who toiled to feed the people of the North and Wanni. The food scarcities created by the uncertainties of fighting, made the people to depend on subsidies. The Bishops who believed in efficiency and effectiveness of the grassroots level initiatives motivated everyone to grow food. He wanted the people to free them from dependency on subsidies. Being used to listen to the voice of God arising from the voice of women and children, Bishop Rayappu responded to God’s voice “I am hungry.’’ He was a man who never cursed darkness but lit a candle. His pragmatic approach in lessening the suffering of his people has become a beacon of light to all the other bishops and priests as to how to act in crisis and amidst human cruelty and atrocities. 

The period from 20th to 23th February 2000 was used for the harvesting and preparing the land for the next season. Gathering all priests and clergy and activists at the Madhu Shrine the Bishop discussed his perspective in the light of the aspirations of the people. He reflected on the practicality of this evangelical process and the love ethic of the gospel. He further emphasized that God reveals to human beings not at good times but at times human misery and burden of sin- personal and social. That is why God incarnated as Jesus of Nazareth at a time when the land was being occupied by the Romans as well as the local religious leadership corrupted and burdened with sin.

Any society with narrow mindedness and the reluctance to change has to face it’ the consequences of being so and can be self-destructive too. It is this same reality that influenced the Sri Lankan society since in 1950s. Our inability to create socio economic political structures to build a country with justice and peace,since 1948 has resulted in insurrections and war bringing in only dissension and destruction. Since the country has failed to the demand of the youth have led struggles and resulted in our mother land being engulfed more than six times in direct confrontation with war and conflict within a period of six decades up to 2009. Pain and suffering had been immense.  It means that in every ten years this country had degenerated by its own inability create a cohesive society. Both the Tamil and the Sinhala leadership have had to share this mutual betrayal of people leading the present and the future generations to despair. Hence the brain drain is also a mutually shared social catastrophe for both communities.

As a person dedicated for the human freedom and justice the present Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm cardinal Ranjith had being greatly disturbed by the devastating war and its consequences, responded to  Bishop Rayappu’s appeal by organizing the Interreligious Committee to visit the Madhu Shrine on 18thFebruary 2001 for a prayer service for peace. Ven.Dr. Kumburupitiye Vajira, Ven.Udagama Buddarakkkitha Nayaka Thero Ven. Watinapaha Somananda Thero and Ven. Wimalasara Thero accompanied by 30 Buddhist monks and a number of Moulavies were led by Rev.Dr. Malcom Cardinal Ranjith. At the Madhu Shrine these religious leaders had a dialogue with the LTTE militants and the ordinary people, which helped them to understand the ground reality and deepen the understanding of the political, social and economic aspirations of Tamil people. When, peace the eminent phenomena of the well being of the human life was being swayed away by the turbulent winds of the war, the situation aggravates critically. May be the inter religious group lacked the political backing and that it might not have reached what they expected, but the gathering in Madhu did opened the eyes of the participants.

On 2nd April 2008 Bishop Rayappu met priests of the diocese of Mannar as they were facing a paradoxical situation as the war had entered the vicinity of the national Madhu Shrine. The miraculous statue of our Lady of Madhu had to be preserved and protected. This great responsibility was entrusted to Fr. S.Emillianuspillai by Bishop Rayappu Joseph. The statue had to be protected from the threat of being destroyed in case there was crossfire between the two warring factions. The Bishop was confident of the ingenuity and the commitment of Fr Emill. With the practical experience at the ground level in the context of the dreadful war, Fr. Emil act immediately.  Secretly in thick darkness he escaped with the statue and reached safely to Thevanpetti and for more than three months Fr.Emill had to protect the statue with keen surveillance, care and well informed by the sources who collaborated with him including his Bishop.

By July 2008 when the war was aggravating Bishop Rayappu gave advance notice Fr. Emil not to take the statue away from the diocese of Mannar at any circumstance and if possible maneuver to bring the statue to Mannar. At this decisive moment Fr. Emil contacted his brother Priests Fr. Benette Stephen, Fr.Wasntha Silan and Fr.Francis Joseph (missing since 17 May 2009 with lorry lord of Wanni war victims) a renowned priest in Wanni, known in the North informed his personal plight to his brother priests may be even death threats. 

On 21st July 2008 the statue of Marada Madhu Matha (MMM) was brought to Munankavil in an ambulance which was an opportune moment to move the statue to Mannar. Fr. Benette Stephen who perhaps was in touch with the LTTE local commanders informed that it might be right time move statue to Wanni to Mannar as per the intention of the Bishop. Responding instantly Fr. Emil accompanied by Fr. Arunanandan OMI and Sr.Ida of the Holy Cross Congregation found refuge in an ambulance with the historical and sacred statue of Madhu Matha, with the firm determination to reach the destination animated by deep faith and hope in the perpetual succorof the Mother Mary.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph was approaching with his vicar general Rev. Fr. Victor Soosa in an ambulance. History was being repeated after a period of five centuries. Fr Emil descending from Manthei generation with a history of overcoming obstacles from the enemies fleeing to Marudha Madhu with this same statue, repeated the history by handing over the statue to his Bishop and Fr Victor Soosa another member of Manthei calan from Vankalai. The exercise was carried out according to wise plan incubated by Bishop Rayappu Joseph, an excellent planer and an efficient administrator. Through his ingenuity and his deep faith in God’s providence, he was able to defeat the vested interest of both warring parties to secure the ownership of the statue to be used as a symbol of power. 

Bishop Rayappu continued his prophetic mission committing his whole life denouncing the shameful war and offering and alternative to the two warring armed groups of his own community as well as the army whenever he encountered them. He proclaimed to the people of Sri Lanka and the refugees at the Madhu Shrine the good news of peace, harmony and reconciliation in uniting the divided nation with fears and suspicions.  The Bible relates the Exodus of the Israelites to a new country. In the Exodus chapters of the Bible we read that led his people to a new peaceful country. Bishop Rayappu relentlessly labored to unite Sri Lanka with the collective contribution of the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgers and Malay youth. His lordship Bishop Rayappu who is still among us as the second episcopal leader of the diocese of Mannar would be remembered always for his valour in times of crisis and stood by his people in the greatest crisis after the Cankili 1 and the Dutch persecution of Christians of Mannar.

( This article was written before the death of Bishop Rayappu and views expressed here are the autrhor's won) 

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