Pope Francis ponders shutting down 163 parishes in Imo State's Ahiara diocese over ethnic spat

POPE Francis is considering shutting down the 163 parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Ahiara in Imo State in response to the protracted crisis generated by appointment of Peter Okpalaeke as the local bishop.


Bishop Okpalaeke’s appointment four years ago after the demise of Bishop Victor Chikwe has been vehemently resisted by reverend fathers of Mbaise extraction and the laity, leading to a stalemate in the diocese. Due to the impasse, the Ahiara Cathedral and the bishop’s court have remained under lock and key with nobody to administer Holy Communion ever since.


Local priests believe that the bishop should be someone of Mbaise extraction and have vowed not to work with Bishop Chikwe. One key figure at the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria (CSN) revealed that the pope would be left with no choice than to wield the big sticks if the stalemate continues.


He added: “What is happening in Ahiara is a great affront unheard of in the history of Catholicism in Nigeria and Africa. Never has the appointment of a bishop been this hotly contested and it is a shame and very embarrassing to the CSN and the pope.”


Furthermore, he added that since the gladiators have indicated they would not back down, the pope might have to close down the 163 parishes in the diocese. This CSN source indicated that some of the recalcitrant priests fuelling opposition to the bishopric appointment may also be de-robed to serve as deterrent to others.


“If you consider how much patience the pope has displayed, you will agree that it won’t be out of place for him to act now. Any moment from now, he may announce the parishes are no longer under the Vatican and in that instance, they can get somewhere else to go.


“The pope is the final authority of the church and nothing will make him go back to primordial ethnic sentiments,” the source added.


Despite this, the embattled Bishop Okpalaeke declared yesterday that he is unperturbed by opposition to his appointment. He declared he was awaiting his installation despite protests from priests of Ahiara extraction.


Bishop Okpalaeke added: “What they are saying is foreign to my vocation. My vocation comes from God, declared by the church.


“I have been living my life as a fulfilled priest. Wherever I found myself as a priest, surely I will see God on the last day, that is my mission.”


Although the opposing priests have all written the letter of apology as demanded by Pope Francis as a punishment for resisting the authority of the church, checks revealed they have decided to operate from the sidelines while urging on laity leaders to continue with the struggle. Chief Gerald Anyanwu, the president of the Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Men Organisation, said the diocese is not rebelling against the pope but demanding justice and equity.

Chief Anyawu added: “We are not questioning the decision of the pope but we will not accept Okpalaeke as bishop. The process of his appointment did not follow laid down procedures for the appointment of bishops."


Another member of the laity, Sir Sebastian Eke, said: “Our position is justice. We don’t see any reason why somebody from this diocese or any other diocese from Imo State cannot be appointed as the Bishop of Ahiara Diocese."