ROME— After Pope Francis demanded that priests from Nigeria’s Ahiara diocese write him promising loyalty, including accepting a new bishop appointed five years ago from outside the area, an online campaign is now attempting to cast doubt on the authenticity of the pope’s instructions.
Last week, Nigerian church leaders met Francis to discuss the situation of Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, appointed to Ahiara by then-Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. He has since then been rejected by most of the clergy and the laity, because he’s not from the diocese nor from the Mbaise people who dominate the area.
Speaking to that group, the pontiff read a strong message, mincing no words: “Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church. This is forbidden.”
An English version of the text was posted June 9 on the blog of Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference. Some days later it was released by the Vatican’s press office, giving it a seemingly unambiguous official state as a papal act.
Yet a new online campaign is attempting to cast doubt on it, claiming the church in Ahiara is being persecuted by the hierarchy.
“Discard any fake news coming from enemies of the church in Mbaise,” says one of the many messages forwarded to Crux by sources in the country, obviously put together by those who refuse to accept Okpaleke.
The messages began to circulate after Kaigama published the letter from the pope, and it clearly states that no apology letters will be written.
“This is the second time that they are flying this kind of apology letter,” the unsigned message says. “How many times is the pope going to request apology letters from Mbaise?”
They claim that their rejection of Okpaleke has nothing to do with ethnicity, “we simply don’t want” him.
To further try to make the case for Kaigama’s post being false, the message also says that neither the pope nor the Church use “such strong words to win souls … Let us keep praying for the church in Mbaise under persecution by the church hierarchy.”
Most of the priests who reject Okpaleke are represented by a group called “Mbaise Indigenous Catholic Priests.” They claim that Pope Francis was misinformed about what is going on in the diocese, and insist that the appointment of this bishop instead of choosing a priest from the diocese is an “injustice and malicious conspiracy” against the people of Mbaise.
Observers in Nigeria have told Crux that the situation could escalate rapidly, and there are those who fear a schism, meaning that the diocese or some part of it could formally break ties with Rome.
On May 21, the anniversary of the 2013 episcopal ordination of Okpaleke, Professor Amadi Azuogu, who opposes the bishop, released a letter addressed to Cardinal John Onaiyekan titled “The Unexploded ‘Atom Bomb’ of a Cardinal.”
In it, he writes that the Mbaise rejected Okpaleke’s ordination in 2013, they reject it now, “and will reject it FOREVER.” [Note: capitalization as found in original.]
In a long letter full of war-related terms such as “Trojan horse” and the “U.S. atomic bomb that ended World War II,” the author refers to May 21 as an “infamy” and calls it a “demonic” day. He also questions Francis’s mercy, asking if it’s a “bumper sticker.”
Azuogu has no qualms in defining Onaiyekan, appointed by Francis as Apostolic Administrator of the diocese back in 2013, as a big part of the problem, calling him a “liar” and accusing him of taking the priests and laity of the diocese for fools.
“That we have a rural diocese does not mean that we have a rural brain,” Azuogu writes.
He also attacks several Vatican prelates, calling one of them a “Catholic racist.”
Onaiyekan was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2012.
It’s hardly unprecedented that the priests and laity of a diocese rebel against a bishop’s appointment. For instance, back in 2015, the people of Osorno, in Chile, opposed the appointment of bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros. To this day he remains a divisive figure in the diocese, but he is serving in it.
What’s unusual in this situation is Francis’s threat to suspend all the priests from the diocese who don’t write to him by July 9, pledging total obedience and indicating a willingness “to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.”
Those who fail to do so, according to the text of Francis’s words released by the Vatican Press Office, will be suspended “a divinis,” meaning they will no longer be allowed to minister in public.
According to local reports, in 2015 some 130 diocesan priests ministered to an estimated 520,000 Catholics, out of a local population of about 675,000. The alleged numbers of priests in favor of or against Okpaleke is unknown.