Church members in the troubled Ahiara diocese in Nigeria have said they will not accept the leadership of Bishop Peter Okpaleke, even if the priests of the diocese adhere to a papal demand for obedience.
Early in June, Pope Francis issued a stern directive to priests of the Ahiara diocese, warning that if they did not accept the leadership of Bishop Okpaleke within 30 days, they would be suspended from ministry. Bishop Okplaleke, a priest of a neighbouring diocese, was appointed by the Pontiff in December 2012. The Catholics of Ahiara, angered that the bishop was not a native of their own diocese and that he was a member of another tribal group, had refused to accept the appointment.
Although the priests of Ahiara are apparently prepared to accept the Pope’s demand for obedience, lay Catholics have vowed to continue their resistance.
A massive protest against Bishop Okpaleke was held at the diocesan cathedral on July 2, when thousands of church goers from the 163 Parishes in the embattled Diocese, stormed the Cathedral to protest the failure of the Vatican to appoint another Bishop to replace Okpalaeke, whom they said can never be welcomed in their Diocese.
The laity in Ahiara are demanding a bishop who has affinity or incardinated in the diocese without minding his ethnic background, noting that they would not accept Okpalaeke for the fact that he does not understand the culture, language of the people, claiming he was secretly imposed on the people of the diocese without following due process expected in the selection and appointment of Catholic bishops.
The Governor of Imo State, Chief Rochas Okorocha, the province in which the diocese is located, visited the cathedral on July 2 and made an appeal for an end to the stalemate. Chief Rochas Okorocha had personally led heads of security agencies in the state as well as his cabinet members and the Chairman of the State Council of Traditional Rulers, Eze Samuel Ohiri to the Maria Mater Ecclesiae Cathedral, Ahiara in Mbaise, Imo State, to address the priests and the laity, where he had appealed for peace and calm, and urged the priests and local people to accept the Pope’s appointment.
Mr. Okorocha explained that the church will become an object of ridicule if the crisis ends with the priests and laity in the Diocese disobeying Papal instructions.
“I am a Catholic, and I’m also the governor of Imo State. I’ve come here to see my people and address you on the burning issues affecting this Diocese. But I wish you would listen to me attentively so that you can go home with something. I’ve had meetings with all the priests. I’ve listened to their anger, their grievances and I’m aware of all the historical backgrounds to this agitation. Today, we have a challenge that whatever has made Ahiara a centre of the crisis, we must change it for better. Declaration of Biafran War, Ahiara; the killing of a steward, Ahiara; and now, Diocesan agitation spanning six years and attracting global focus also Ahiara,” he said.
Mr Okorocha added that he wished his advice to the priests and laity had been accepted earlier. He explained that the people of Mbaise had made their point and to continue insisting on rejecting the instructions of the Pope will cast the people of the area in a bad light before the whole world.