ROME – After a period of relative calm, an almost unprecedented crisis in the Nigerian diocese of Ahiara, which has been without a bishop for seven years as priests and laity refuse to accept the new leader appointed by Pope Benedict XVI and backed by Pope Francis, is heating up again as a Nigerian prelate has broken ranks and publicly endorsed the resistance.

On Dec. 1, Bishop Joseph Danlami Bagobiri, of Kafanchan, in Kaduna State, wrote a statement in which he urged relevant authorities to “give Ahiara a bishop close to their hearts” — meaning, dump the bishop named by one pope and supported by another, and find someone else.

Bagobiri’s statement prompted the Nigerian bishops’ conference  to say they’re “saddened” by it, asserting that it contains “many false and misleading affirmations,” that it’s ill timed, and that it will only “deepen a crisis that has already lasted too long.”

Already, Francis took the highly unusual step of demanding that every priest in the diocese write him personally to pledge loyalty, including accepting the bishop picked for the diocese, and threatening suspension if they refused. While most priests in Ahiara did write the pope, the proposed bishop still has not been able to take possession of the diocese.

The crisis began in 2012, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Peter Ebere Okpaleke, a member of the Ibo tribe that’s strong in southeastern Nigeria, to replace a bishop in Ahaira who died in 2010 and who was from the Mbaise, the linguistic group that dominates the area. Local clergy rejected Okpaleke, claiming the Mbaise are being sidelined when it comes to the appointment of bishops.

By choosing a man for a different diocese to lead the southern Ahiara, the Vatican was upholding a long-standing tradition in Africa of not allowing choices for bishops to be defined by tribal affiliations.

Since the standoff began, there have been no priestly ordinations, even though an estimated 50 seminarians finished their studies in recent years. There have been no confirmations nor Holy Thursday masses, and despite the hopes of many who want to see the “Ahiara saga” come to an end, it doesn’t look like it’ll wrap up any time soon.

Bagobiri’s complaint

In his comments on the issue, Bagobiri wrote that the crisis that followed the appointment of Okpalaeke could have been avoided or resolved if the Nigerian bishops’ conference (CBCN) had been “courageous enough to follow truth and justice, by listening to the aggrieved party and representing the case positively or in an empathetic manner as a united force to Rome.”

Bagobirbi also wrote that back in 2013, during a plenary assembly of the CBCN, it was advised that insisting on “commanding obedience” from the faithful in Ahiara wasn’t going to resolve the problem, while seeking “to constructively engage them in dialogue,” to strike a “reasonable compromise,” would have been a better way to go.

In a 1,500-word letter he sent to the members of the CBCN via e-mail, and which was circulated via social media and WhatsApp, the bishop also said that the priests of Ahiara feel “surcharged” by the process that chose Okpalaeke as bishop, because they were denied their “right to exercise a consultative vote on the discernment process.”

Under Church law, a pope is free to choose whomever he wants as a bishop. Although it’s become customary in many places for papal representatives to consult priests before giving suggestions to Rome, he only has to do so “if he judges it expedient.”

According to Bagobirbi, questioning the “anomaly of this nature,” referring to the non-consultation, doesn’t make the priests “rebels or a disobedient lot.”

He urges the CBCN to engage the local church, “not as a subordinate but as a legally established ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the Roman Catholic Church,” and suggested three possible solutions:

  • Okpaleke, “in a spirit of sacrifice, [should] tender a letter of resignation,” and be given jurisdiction over a non-geographic diocese.
  • Appointing a priest from Ahiara as an auxiliary bishop to work with Okpaleke.
  • Appointing a Mbase priest as auxiliary to any of the three dioceses in Anambra state.

Until the crisis is resolved, Bagobirbi wrote, the demonization of the Mbaise people should stop, and to imply that among the 500 local priests there is not one suitable to become a bishop, is not only an “insult but a strong indictment of the formation given in our seminaries.”

According to the 2017 edition of the Vatican’s Yearbook, there aren’t 500 priests in Ahiara but 124, along with 170 seminarians.

The CBCN responded in a letter dated Dec. 5, signed by Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos and Archbishop Augustine Obiora Akubeze, heads of the conference.

“We therefore demand, in the name of the CBCN, that you immediately issue another statement through the public media withdrawing in its entirety your earlier statement and apologizing to the Holy Father, the CBCN, Bishop Peter Okpaleke, and the People of God in Ahiara Diocese for the damage your statement is already doing,” Kaigama and Akubeze wrote.

The bishop responded on Dec. 13, apologizing only for the aspects of his letter that may have offended the pope, insisting that the only possible strategy is to go from one that demands “unquestionable obedience” to constructive engagement.

At the grassroot level, the situation continues to be complex and divisive. There are many who are eagerly waiting for the pope to set a date of Okpaleke’s installation, and there are those who continue to mount a resistance.

RELATED: Nigerian diocese remains badly split

At the moment, some Catholics in Ahiara, including some former dissidents, say they’re eagerly awaiting Okpaleke’s installation as bishop. They argue that even though it’s taking longer than expected, “it’s not a major cause of tension,” since there’s hope the date will be announced soon.

A source close to the crisis told Crux that unlike before the pope’s responses, there are only a handful of people who are challenging the fact that Okpaleke is the bishop of Ahiara, and “there will always be such a minority.”

Among them is Father David Iheanacho. He told Crux that the situation is “far from being resolved,” and that the pope’s letter succeeded in “silencing the priests,” while at the same time it “lionized the lay people.”

The shifting front to the laity, he argued, is dangerous because they don’t have a centralized authority: “It is now where it could easily degenerate into bloodshed.”

Iheanacho also said that the crisis has damaged the image of the Church at a national level, and that in Ahiara Catholics are waiting for Francis to “speak like the father of a family at war.”

Among the seminarians, the consensus lies with those who want to turn the page, accept the pope’s authority and welcome Okpaleke. In a Sept. 30 letter to Francis, sent through the office of the diocese’s vicar general, Ahiara’s 115 major seminarians pledged their loyalty to the pontiff, thanking him for his “wonderful patience.”

“This is evident in bearing with us all these years, otherwise our diocese Ahiara would have been suppressed or written off. WE ARE GRATEFUL!” they wrote, with the emphasis in the original.

The future priests wrote that they accepted the pope’s pronouncement on the crisis as “final and conclusive,” and that they are prayerfully looking forward to the arrival of Okpaleke.