Pope backs down after defending Nigerian bishop rejected by locals


A Nigerian bishop Pope Francis fiercely defended resigned after a five-year, sometimes violent, stand-off with rebel priests and faithful who rejected him as an ethnic outsider, the Vatican said.

The case of the Vatican versus the people of the diocese of Ahiara in south-western Nigeria became a rare battle of wills that tested the power of papal authority and could set a precedent for future appointments.

A Vatican statement said the pope accepted the resignation of Peter Ebere Okpaleke as bishop of the diocese of Ahiara. It said the position had been declared vacant and a papal administrator would run it in the interim.

Many priests and faithful refused to swear allegiance to Okpaleke because he is not from Mbaise, a heavily Catholic area made up of an amalgam of indigenous clans connected by inter-marriage.

Okpaleke was appointed bishop by then-pope Benedict in 2012, but protests prevented him ever taking over the diocese. His installation ceremony took place in another area of Nigeria because the doors of the Ahiara cathedral were locked and the bishop could not enter.

The situation came to a head last June when Francis demanded all priests in the diocese write him a letter within 30 days pledging their obedience to and accepting Okpaleke as their bishop because he was appointed by a pope.

Those who did not write such a letter faced suspension from the priesthood, the pope told them at the time. Francis also demanded rebellious priests write a letter of apology to Okpaleke.

Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news agency, on Monday published excerpts from Okpaleke’s resignation letter, saying he had not been able to take possession of diocese or even live in it because of continuing “violent reaction and resistance”.

Fides said some 200 priests wrote to the pope promising obedience. Many told the pontiff they had “psychological difficulty collaborating with the bishop after years of conflict”.

The agency, controlled by the Vatican, said the rebellious priests should “reflect on the grave damage inflicted on the Church” through their “unreasonable actions opposing a bishop legitimately appointed by the Supreme Pontiff”.

In his resignation letter, Okpaleke said remaining bishop in would not be beneficial to the Church.