Catholic Diocese of Ahiara, Imo State has not known peace since the pioneer bishop, Rt. Rev. Victor Adibe Chikwe, died in September 2010. The Catholic faith in this once bastion of the Catholic Church in Nigeria has suddenly come under a very severe criticism and threat, especially since the announcement of Monsignor Peter Okpalaeke as the Bishop elected, to the extent of brutality in the house of God
The practice is that the process of selecting and consecrating a successor commences immediately after a bishop is out. In this instance, the process became so slow that even the ordinary man in the street got to know that “something was definitely wrong” in the house of God. For more than two years, the Holy See was unable to announce a successor to the late Bishop Chikwe.
Mbaise monarch, Eze Desmond Oguguo, a Catholic, used every opportunity available to him to plead that a bishop be appointed for the diocese. Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI, on Friday, December 7, 2012, announced Monsignor Peter Ebere Okpalaeke, a priest from Awka Diocese, Anambra State, as the Bishop-elect of Ahiara Diocese.
Apart from the appointment being a shocker to priests of the diocese, members of the laity keyed into the stout objection raised by the priests. They were unanimous in asking the Holy See to reverse the appointment of Okpalaeke. This was not reversed, while the laity, propelled by their priests, never re-considered their stand on rejecting Okpalaeke as their bishop.
When it became clear that the priests were adamant over the issue, the Catholic Church decided to move the consecration of Okpalaeke to the Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Ulakwo, Owerri North local council area of Imo State. A tight security was weaved around the venue of the event by security agencies.
But after the consecration, Okpalaeke was not allowed to move into the Bishop’s Court in Nnarambia, Mbaise. The priests equally refused to recognize him as their bishop.
The former administrator of the diocese, Monsignor Theo Nwalo, in a paper titled, “Responding to the current problems in Ahiara Diocese”, noted that the pronouncement of Okpalaeke by the Papacy elicited sadness and anger instead of jubilation and joyful celebration.
“Being a native of this diocese and having served in this diocese all my life, I must report that I have never seen Mbaise people this angry before. There is anger all over the place. And people seem to be preparing for the worst”, Nwalo stated.
“The Catholic faith in this once bastion of the Catholic Church in Nigeria has suddenly come under a very severe criticism and threat, especially since the announcement of Monsignor Peter Okpalaeke as our Bishop-elect”.
He expressed the fear that “the situation will grow worse if nothing is done to resolve the problem quickly, so that priests and ordinary Christians could return to practicing their faith in peace and joy”.
Nwalo was being prophetic in the piece he wrote several months ago as the disagreement over the bishop-elect took a dangerous dimension October 16, 2014, when priests allegedly engaged in free for all.
Sunday Vanguard investigations revealed that Rev. Fr. Januarius Chima Ahaneku went to St. Brigid’s Catholic Church, Nnarambia, at about 7.15pm, following his posting to the parish by the Vicar General of the embattled diocese, Rev. Fr. Clement Ebii.
While Ahaneku was accused of storming the parish with some people and assaulting the resident priest, Rev. Fr. Marcellinus Nweke, Ahaneku countered that he was there on legitimate posting.
Nweke explained that he had to alert the police and the people when his brother priest allegedly “exhibited an act unbecoming of an ordained Catholic priest”.
“They started harassing us, using hammer and some iron bars to break the doors to enter. Some of us even sustained injuries. I dislocated my left shoulder”, he said.
The resident priest alleged that the police recovered pump action rifle, double barrel gun and an electric shocker from Ahaneku and his friends.
In his own account, Ahaneku said he presented a letter from the Vicar General deploying him to St. Brigid’s Parish as Acting Parish Priest, and he never attempted the use of violence as claimed by Nweke. He explained that the men, who were arrested by the police as thugs, merely accompanied him to the Parish, to assist him settle down with his belongings.
“The parish priest left without the knowledge of the Vicar General/Delegate of the Diocese. So, I was detailed to go there and take care of the souls of the parishioners. I didn’t go there with thugs”, Ahaneku said.
The obviously angry priest went on: “When Fr. Nweke came out, we greeted each other and I explained my mission to him and he said he was not informed of the posting and insisted that the Vicar General should call him.
“The Vicar General called him severally but he refused to pick his calls. I took him to my car and showed him my authority, the letter I was given and after reading it, he said there was no problem.”
Continuing, the priest recalled that as he was trying to move his belongings into the parish house, with the help of his friends, Nweke started making calls.
“They first raised false alarm to the police that some armed robbers invaded their house. In a matter of minutes, several people stormed the place. A lot of them were carrying machetes and other dangerous weapons. I wanted to leave in my vehicle but my brother priest stood in front of my car, insisting that I will not move an inch. In order not to smash him or commit any crime, I left the vehicle there”.
The Sports Utility Vehicle, which Ahaneku drove to the parish was vandalized by angry youths who rushed to the parish and was still in the custody of the Church at the time of going to press.
The Vicar General of the Diocese, Ebii, however, confirmed that Ahaneku had his approval to report to St. Brigid’s Catholic Church.
“Fr. Ahaneku was sent there officially to go and do pastoral work. He had a legal paper from me”,Ebii said.
Interestingly, The Guide, a tabloid published by Ahiara Catholic Diocese, in its volume 16 number 22, flashed a screaming headline: “Outrage: Pro-Okpalaeke hoodlums invade St. Brigid’s Church”. The management of the paper not only used unprintable words against their Ahaneku, but also tongue lashed John Cardinal Onaiyekan in their “Guide Comment”.
Reacting to the publication, a villager, who simply identified himself as Nnaemeka, said: “What was interesting about the publication was that the paper published the photographs of the alleged thugs, drenched in their own blood. The paper was however silent on who inflicted the varying degrees of bodily harm on the citizens”.
After showing Sunday Vanguard the photographs of vehicles allegedly used by Ahaneku and his friends and published by The Guide, Nnaemeka wondered how supposed thugs would go to battle with their expensive vehicles. In the meantime, Imo State Police Command has appealed to the Administrator of Ahiara Diocese, who doubles as the Archbishop of Abuja Ecclesiastical Province, His Eminence, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, to find a lasting solution to the Ahiara Diocese crisis.
The state Police Public Relations Officer, PPRO, Mr. Andrew Enwerem, made the appeal while reacting to the St. Brigid’s Church, Nnarambia incident.
“It is most shocking that priests can get to the level they did in the last episode. The Catholic Church and its priests are supposed to show good examples for others to follow”, the PPRO said.
Enwerem said the Owerri Area Command was already handling the matter, while some people have been arrested in connection with the incident.