By Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban
Nigerian Catholic priests have defied orders by the Pope to accept a 2012 appointment of a Bishop of face suspension from the church.
The priests from the Ahiara diocese located in Imo State in south-eastern Nigeria said they were not going to accept Peter Okpalaeke as their bishop.
The Holy Father on June 8 this year met with a delegation from the diocese and gave strict directives. Local media confirmed that the reason for their rejection was because Okpaleke was not from the area he had been appointed.
It is absurd that out of the 700 Mbaise indigenous priests, none of them was considered qualified to be named a bishop, either in their home diocese or elsewhere.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano confirmed the Pope’s orders that ‘stubborn’ priests must officially write to him by July 9 seeking forgiveness and accepting the 2012 appointment, failure for which they will be suspended.
Local media portal, the Vanguard, quoted leader of the Ahiara diocese, Fr. Austine Ekechukwu, reaffirming their stance and questioning the legitimacy of the supposed letter sent by the Pope.
‘‘It is absurd that out of the 700 Mbaise indigenous priests, none of them was considered qualified to be named a bishop, either in their home diocese or elsewhere.’‘ Speaking about the Pope’s letter he said, ‘‘It was faulty because His Holiness Pope Francis cannot, after writing a letter of such, fail to officially sign it. It was not duly signed and we cannot accept it.’‘
Their position has caused distress in the Catholic fraternity in Africa’s most populous country. One leader described their posture as ‘strange’ and ‘an insult never heard of in the Catholic Church.’‘ The Imo State governor , Rochas Okorocha also waded in the issue asking for the faithful to accept the decision of the Church.
“I don’t know how you will take it after my speech. The whole world knows that the Pope has asked all the priests from Mbaise to write a letter of apology to him minus a few of them. It might be right, it might be wrong but that’s not the question.
‘‘The fact is that before the world, we are no longer enjoying this peace because Mbaise has more priests in the whole of South-East. But sometimes, a wise person behaves foolishly for the sake of his children. So, we must change our style before we deny ourselves of our justice,” a statement released by his office read.
The standoff has created a leadership vacuum in the diocese as it has not had a bishop for the last five years. Okpaleke’s appointment was made by Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. It followed the death of the pioneer bishop of the diocese, Rt. Rev. Victor Chikwe.