Pope Francis Demands Obedience from Nigerian Clergy on Pain of Suspension

Reuters/Alessandro BianchiPope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church addresses the faithful at the St. Peter's Square in Rome.

Pope Francis blasted a group of unruly southern Nigerian priests for refusing to accept their bishop and told gave them to pledge obedience to him or face suspension from the church. The Holy Father gave the ultimatum when he accepted a delegation from the Diocese of Ahiara Thursday.

Much of the clergy and laity of Ahiara in Imo state refused to accept the appointment of Bishop Peter Okpaleke because he is not an Igbo man from Mbaise. They wanted one of their own to become their bishop.

The Mbaise ethnic group is one of the most Catholic of Nigerian peoples. Seventy-seven percent of the region's population are Catholics. Nearby dioceses, in contrast, range between 19 and 70 percent Catholic. The diocese has conducted 167 priestly ordinations since its establishment in 1987.

This wealth of priests has given pride to the faithful, who wanted one of their own to be appointed as their bishop. The former bishop, the late Victor Adibe Chikwe, was accepted by local Catholics because he came from Mbaise and was a "son of the soil."

Chikwe served from 1987 until his death in September 2010. The diocese was vacant for 24 months before Bishop Okpaleke's appointment in December 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI, but he wasn't allowed to hold mass in the cathedral due to the strong opposition. Nonetheless, he was ordained a Bishop on May 21, 2013.

Pope Francis gave a strongly worded address to the clergy by comparing their behavior to that of the "murderous tenants" spoken of by Jesus in the gospel. "Whoever was opposed to Bishop Okpaleke taking possession of the Diocese wants to destroy the Church," he said.

Francis said he had considered "suppressing the diocese, but then I thought that the Church is a mother and cannot abandon her many children." Instead, he ordered the priests to write a personal letter imploring the pope's forgiveness. Any priest who fails to write such a letter by July 9 will be suspended or will lose office.