Human rights groups demand investigation into mysterious death of missionary in Venezuela

Father Josiah Asa K’Okal, a Venezuelan missionary originally from Kenya, is pictured in an undated file photo baptizing a child. Father K'Okal, a member of the Consolata Missionaries, went missing on Jan. 1, 2024, and was found dead a day later near the town of Tucupita, Venezuela. Venezuelan parishes and human rights organizations have demanded "a trustworthy, expeditious and transparent" investigation into his death, which local authorities claimed was a suicide. (OSV News photo/courtesy Consolata America)

CARACAS, Venezuela (OSV News) -- Venezuelan parishes and human rights organizations are demanding "a trustworthy, expeditious and transparent" investigation into the death of Father Josiah K'Okal, a missionary who went missing Jan. 1 and was found dead a day later near the town of Tucupita.

The letter appealing for a fair investigation into the death of the priest was signed by 336 organizations and individuals.

Douglas Rico, the director of Venezuela's criminal investigations unit, announced Jan. 3 that the 54-year-old priest had committed suicide, adding that some rope was spotted next to a secluded patch in the forest where his body was found.

Two days later a group of more than 130 organizations including religious groups, parishes, human rights groups and universities protested the official's statement and signed a letter that questions the government's findings.

"Father K'Okal was a defender of human rights. And human rights defenders take risks when they act," the letter reads. "His profound spiritual convictions also raise reasonable doubts about the (government's) hypothesis."

Meanwhile an Indigenous ministry founded by Father K'Okal in the apostolic vicariate of Tucupita asked for his memory to be "respected."

"We demand that the dissemination of unhealthy information that denigrates the memory of Father K'Okal and causes us so much pain cease," the Indigenous ministry of Tucupita said in a statement and encouraged media outlets to talk about "his teachings, his missionary work, his passion for spreading the Gospel."

Father K'Okal was born in Kenya, where he entered the priesthood in his early 20s.

He arrived in Venezuela in 1997 as a member of Consolata Missionaries, a religious order that has several missions in remote areas of Africa and South America.

Since 2005, Father K'Okal had been ministering to the Warao Indigenous peoples in northeast Venezuela, learning their language and their traditions, while also speaking out about their problems and tending to their spiritual needs.

The Warao tribe has been seriously affected by Venezuela's economic crisis, with roughly 6,800 of its members now living in cities in neighboring Brazil, as they struggle with fuel shortages, inflation and a breakdown of the nation's health system that have made it difficult for the Warao to stay in their small villages.

In 2022, Father K'Okal had completed a master's degree in anthropology, writing a thesis about the conditions faced by Warao refugees. He also taught human rights courses, translated prayers and parts of the Bible into Warao, and set up a ministry for Indigenous peoples in the Apostolic Vicariate of Tucupita.

"He was very humble but also charismatic," said Father Juan Carlos Greco, a fellow member of the Consolata order, in a podcast posted on the group's website.

"He would sit with children and the elderly to learn about their language, and about their culture, to learn about their myths and their history. And after becoming their disciple, he began to show them the Gospel from a different perspective."

Hundreds of Warao turned up at Father K'Okal's funeral Jan 12 and walked next to his body as it was carried from a morgue in Tucupita to the city's cathedral. Some of the Indigenous people wore their traditional headdresses, and others carried ceremonial batons, forming a guard of honor for the priest's coffin as it entered the building.

Church leaders in Venezuela have refrained from discussing the reasons for Father K'Okal's death and are instead focusing on highlighting his legacy.

"The life that Father K'Okal gave and sacrificed leaves us with some counsel, and challenges us to continue to accompany communities that need shepherds," said Auxiliary Bishop Lisandro Rivas of Caracas, in a statement published on X, formerly Twitter.

"May his life encourage us to continue to be bearers of life and men and women who communicate hope," the bishop said in a video message.


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