No fewer than 3, 000 faithful of Ahiara Diocese of the Catholic Church on Saturday converged on the Mater Ecclesiae cathedral, Mbaise in Imo State, for a rally to restate their total rejection of the embattled Bishop Peter Ebele Okpaleke.
Bishop Okpaleke, was appointed Bishop of Ahiara by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, but has been unable to take control of the diocese because of protests by the majority of priests.
Okpaleke was later ordained a bishop in May 2013. The ordination took place not in the Ahiara diocese but at a seminary in the Archdiocese of Owerri.
But the priests argued and still contend that Ahiara is in Mbaise, a predominantly Catholic region of Imo State and that Bishop Okpaleke was brought from neighbouring Anambra State.
In reaction to their opposition Pope Francis gave the defiant priests 30-days ultimatum, which expires July 9, to write a letter to apologize for their opposition, promise obedience to authority and accept the bishop appointed for their diocese.
At the weekend, the diocesan youths, clad in black attire, chanted solidarity songs to reaffirm their support for the position taken by the Ahiara Diocese clerics and the laity council’s to rejection of Okpaleke.
Punch reports that other Catholic men and women who dressed in different church uniforms, also participated in the rally, which started with a rosary procession round the cathedral.
Addressing the congregation, President of the Diocesan Laity Council, Mr. Gerald Anyanwu noted that the people of Mbaise were not against the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis I, but were against the irregularities and injustices allegedly perfected against the people of the diocese in the selection of the bishop.
Anyanwu insisted that Okpaleke was forced on them, and that he was not a priest “incardinated in the Ahiara Presbyterian.”
“There was no time we insisted that the bishop of the diocese must be an Mbaise son, but the prelate must be a priest incardinated in the diocese. We shall accept any bishop whether an Hausa man or a Yoruba man as far as he is incardinated in Ahiara Diocese.”
He frowned against the activities of the Nigeria representatives of the church in Rome and urged them (cardinals) in the Vatican city to urgently look into the case of the Ahiara Diocese.
In his remarks, Provincial Ambassador, Laity Council of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, Mr. Lawrence Opara, dismissed as propaganda, reports that the Mbaise priests would be sanctioned by the Pope if the agitation continued.
Opara, who is also the Secretary, Ahiara Diocese Laity Council, wondered why the case was different and difficult to resolve since it started in 2012.
He said, “This is time of propaganda but the truth must be told. They gave us a bishop by hook and crook means. We cannot accept him.
“It is biblical that if a priest is given to a people of God and he is rejected, he should go and be assigned to another people, who will accept him.”
Opara described the rumour that the Mbaise priests would be sanctioned as false, maintaining that no priest had been derobed without his bishop’s consent and approval.
The traditional ruler of Okirika-Ama, Umuokirika in Ahiazu Mbaise Local Government Area, HRH Eze Dominic Okoro, also faulted the claims that some traditional rulers from Mbaise visited the Pope in the Vatican.
He said, “Those people they said went to Rome to see the Pope were not our true representatives. Those who went from Nigeria deceived the Pope by telling him that they were the representatives of the Diocese.
“I am a traditional ruler and in the way we conduct our traditional institution, no royal father would leave for the Vatican City without all the Ezes knowing.
“We are not in any way against the authority of the Pope, but what we are fighting is injustice, corruption and evil among other vices in the Catholic Church.”