Rev. Peter Ebere Okpaleke has been installed the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria despite protests from locals who preferred someone from their own region and ethnicity. Formerly a priest of the Diocese of Awka, Bishop Okpaleke was installed on May 21 under high security at the Seat of Wisdom Seminary in Ulakwo, in the Archdiocese of Owerri, rather than in the diocese where his see is now located, due to the strong opposition among the local Mbaise community who predominate in Ahiara.
The Catholic bishops of Nigeria expressed sadness at the disunity in the Church. In a homily, Bishop Lucius I Ugorji of Umuahia, reminded Christians that “acceptance of the papal appointment is respect for the Pope, while the outright rejection and inflammatory statements and protests are spiteful and disrespectful of papal authority,” according to The Sun, a Nigerian daily.
Bishop Okpaleke comes from the Awka diocese, which lies 62 miles from Ahiara and 400 miles east of Lagos on the plains of the Mamu River. Awka lies within a region where the Igbo people are predominant. The Mbaise people are predominant in the nearby region of Imo State. and is not an ethnic Mbaise. Bishop Okpaleke was born in 1963, and was ordained a priest in 1992. He has served as a pastor, university chaplain, and diocesan chancellor. After his ordination, he studied canon law at Holy Cross Pontifical University in Rome, and served on the tribunal for the Onitsha ecclesiastical province to which the Awka diocese and Ahiara diocese belong.
Both priests and faithful have made vocal, public protests against Bishop Okpaleke's appointment, blocking access to Ahiara's cathedral and disrupting both automobile and foot traffic in the area.
The Mbaise are a subset of the Igbo, one of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria, in addition to the Yoruba and Hausa. Most Christians in Nigeria are Igbo, and reside in the south-east of the country. Soon after Nigeria gained independence from British colonialism, the government, led by the Yoruba and Hausa peoples, began to persecute the Igbo.
Southeastern Nigeria, with boundaries along the Niger River on the west, the Nigeria-Cameroon border on the east, the Gulf of Guinea to the south, and a line north of the present city Enugu, seceded from Nigeria in July 1967. The region declared itself as the independent Republic of Biafra. This precipitated a devastating civil war that caused the deaths of between 1 million to 3 million as a result of military action, tribal killings, and starvation. The war ended in January 1970 when the military forces of Nigeria, aided by the United Kingdom, finally overcame the Biafran secessionists. Ethnic tensions have plagued the country, and have been exacerbated by Islamist terrorism, especially in the northern tier of the country.
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