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Pope Francis appoints cardinal as administrator of troubled Nigerian diocese

Catholic World News - July 03, 2013

Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, as the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Ahiara.

Founded in 1987 and located in the Mbaise region of Imo State in southern Nigeria, the diocese was governed by Bishop Victor Chikwe from its inception until his death in 2010.

In December 2012, Pope Benedict appointed Father Peter Okpaleke, a priest of the Diocese of Awka in neighboring Anambra State, as the diocese’s new bishop. 400 priests, angered that a Mbaise priest was not appointed, protested the decision.

The appointment “sends a very reprehensible signal about the status and reputation of about 500 Catholic priests that trace their origins to the soil of Mbaise, a diocese that has been globally acclaimed as the Ireland of Nigeria,” the priests said in a statement.

Some priests and lay protesters saw Cardinal Francis Arinze, the retired prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, as the force behind the appointment of Father Okpaleke. Cardinal Arinze comes from Anambra State.

“Awka has five bishops, Mbaise has no bishop,” said a placard at the priests’ protest. “We want Mbaise son as Mbaise bishop.”

Father Okpaleke was ordained bishop of Ahiara on May 21, but the ordination took place at a seminary in another diocese amid heavy security. At the time of the ordination, youth locked the cathedral of Ahiara in protest. Some protesters placed a coffin with the new bishop’s name at diocesan headquarters.

The Holy See has not announced Bishop Okpaleke’s resignation from his see. Typically, the Pope appoints an apostolic administrator when a see is vacant (sede vacante), but a sede plena appointment is not unprecedented: Archbishop Joseph Miot served as apostolic administrator of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from 1997 to 2008, while Archbishop François-Wolff Ligondé remained archbishop, and Bishop Thomas Olmsted was appointed apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Gallup in 2008 while Bishop Donald Pelotte remained diocesan bishop.

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