Few Catholics outside Nigeria will be familiar with the Diocese of Ahiara. But it has probably caused more heartache for the Pope than any other in the world today. He recently became so frustrated that he decided to abolish the diocese. But then he felt a pang of conscience. “I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children,” he told a delegation from Ahiara diocese. He opted instead to give priests an ultimatum: they must profess their obedience to him and their bishop by July 9 or face suspension.

What prompted this rare flexing of the papal biceps? It all goes back to 2012, when Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke to lead the diocese (which was only created in 1987). Ahiara is a stronghold of the Mbaise ethnic group, a fiercely independent people nicknamed “the Irish of Nigeria” because they produce so many missionary priests. The Mbaise expected the new bishop to be one of their own and were appalled at the choice of Bishop Okpaleke, an outsider. Protesters prevented him from taking possession of his cathedral. So his episcopal ordination took place in another diocese.

In 2013, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal John Onaiyekan as apostolic administrator of the diocese. But the cardinal failed to persuade Ahiara’s priests to accept their bishop. That’s why Francis stepped in last week with one of the fiercest papal letters for years. “Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the Church,” he wrote. “This is forbidden.”

Many analysts think that ethnicity is the root cause of the Ahiara conflict. In Africa it is common for popes to select bishops from outside the dominant local ethnic group. This underlines the universality of the Church and helps Catholics to bridge the deep ethnic divides present in many relatively new nations. Yet the Vatican does show a certain sensitivity to ethnicity elsewhere. It would be unlikely to name an Englishman as the Archbishop of Dublin, for example, or an Anglophone as Archbishop of Quebec. But Pope Francis argues that the crisis is not, ultimately, about “tribalism”, but rather “an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord”. In other words, he sees the rejection of Bishop Okpaleke as an attempt to wrest power over the Church from the Pope and the legitimately appointed bishop.

Francis believes, rightly, that he is upholding a fundamental principle: the Pope’s freedom to appoint bishops without local interference. The Church fought for centuries for this right in Europe and still struggles for it to this day in despotic nations such as China. This concept is so important that the Pope would readily sacrifice a diocese for it.

Will Ahiara’s priests fall in line? That seems unlikely given that a rebellious spirit has grown unchecked in the diocese for the past five years. Local clergy insist that the Pope has been misinformed by hostile sources. Some – perhaps many – of the diocese’s 135 priests may disobey him. In which case, we have a 21st-century schism on our hands.

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