Over 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 Ebere Okpaleke.
Okpaleke was anointed and consecrated bishop of the diocese by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 but both the Laity Council and the priests in the diocese rejected his appointed on the grounds that he is not an indigene of the area, among other reasons.
The diocesan youths, who put on 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.
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 inside the cathedral, the President of the Diocesan Laity Council, Mr. Gerald Anyanwu maintained that the people of Mbaise were not against the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Francis I, but that they 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.”
He said, “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.
Also addressing the gathering the 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 (82), 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 (75) 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.”
Another member of the Laity Council of the Diocese, Mr. Sabestine Eke stated that Mbaise people can never be taken for granted by the Nigerian cardinals in Rome.
He noted that Okpaleke was not among the names of the priests sent for bishopric consideration and wondered why he was suddenly consecrated a bishop for the diocese.
He said, “We are fighting for peace and justice. It is very unfortunate that the Ahiara Diocesan bishopric crisis has unraveled many ills in the most revered Catholic Church. However, the truth must be told and we can’t take that high level of intimidation, injustice and corruption in the church”.
Meanwhile, the Governor of the state, Owelle Rochas Okorocha who later visited the scene stated that he was there to douse the tension which was caused by an alleged plan to smuggle Okpaleke into the Diocese by security operatives in the state.
He said, “I am the chief security officer of the state and I can confirm to you that there was no time that security operatives planned to smuggle in Okpaleke into the diocese”
Catholic Secretariat threaten to suspend Imo priests
Meanwhile, the Catholic Secretariat in the country has threatened to suspend the priests in the diocese by July 9,2017 if they failed to accept the appointment of Okpaleke as directed by the Pope.
It added that the rebellious priests would also lose their offices if they continued to disobey the Papal’s directive in respect of Okpalaeke’s appointment as the bishop of the diocese.
The Director of Communications of the Catholic Secretariat, Rev. Fr. Ralph Madu said the church has been praying for the priests to have a change of heart and demonstrate their loyalty to the Catholic Pontiff.
“The point is that the pope has spoken, he had demanded expression of loyalty to him, there is a letter expressing that the priests be loyal to him and they should obey every directive including appointment of bishops and they have till 9th of July to do that,” Madu stated.