The crisis rocking the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpaleke to head the Diocese of Ahiara in Imo State has pitched priests against one another despite an order from Pope Francis that Okpaleke should be embraced while local priests in the diocese should apologize. The President of Ahiara Diocesan Catholic Priests Association, Very Rev. Fr. Austine Ekechukwu has said Okpaleke does not have the backing of the Pope. Acccording to Ekechukwu, “The priests and the laity in Mbaise rejected Bishop Okpaleke because of the sheer injustice that we noticed in the selection process which led to his appointment and consecration.
“It is absurd that, out of the 700 Mbaise indigenous priests, none of them was considered qualified to be named a bishop either in their home diocese or elsewhere. The Nigerian leaders of the church who are working with the Pope in the Vatican City are providing wrong information. Let me say at this point that Awka Diocese, where Okpaleke comes from, with far less number of priests has seven bishops. Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province has seven dioceses, all shepherded by indigenous bishops. Owerri Province has six (dioceses), two of which have bishops from Onitsha province.
“Ahiara was to be the third diocese taken over by Onitsha province, while Owerri has none of its priests working as a bishop in Onitsha province. Okpaleke, coming all the way from Awka Diocese in Onitsha ecclesiastical province, could never have been among the list of 21 priests that Bishop Chikwe of blessed memory sent to Rome as his possible replacement. Nevertheless, before Okpaleke was appointed a bishop, he and his group had travelled to Uganda to condole with the former Papal Nuncio to Nigeria, Archbishop Augustine Kasujja, on the death of his mother.
“It was the former Nuncio, Kasujja, who persuaded Archbishop Obinna, the Metropolitan of Owerri Province to present Okpaleke as the candidate for the vacant seat of Ahiara Diocese. This was how the bishopric candidates from Ahiara Diocese were disqualified and replaced with Peter Okpaleke. The same trend has continued since the crisis broke out as a result of the rejection of the appointment. The pro-Okpaleke group has also been reaching out to some prominent people from Mbaise to support them. They are promising plum positions to priests, who they want to support them. With all these, how can the diocese of Ahiara be suitable to him?
“Okpaleke is not suitable for Ahiara Diocese. He speaks a different Igbo dialect that would be incomprehensible to the rural dwellers of Mbaise. He is also said to be highly temperamental He was completely rejected twice by the priests from his own diocese as a bishop. It is pertinent to note that Awka priests usually describe him as a demigod and a demagogue of the highest order, who would show mercy to no one. Ahiara diocese does not deserve an Awka-rejected priest as a bishop. It is unheard of for Ahiara with a high calibre of quality priests to accept a rejected person from another diocese.
“In fact, he is a square peg in a round hole. He has never worked in Mbaise and he does not know the people at all. How will he succeed in serving as our shepherd? Who will listen to his voice and obey him? Okpaleke, since his early seminary days, has had only one ambition which is to become a bishop and perhaps go higher in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He is a social climber. He considers himself a prince and blue blood in the church. All these and more make him not suitable to shepherd the rural diocese of Ahiara.”