Thousands of Legio Maria church adherents are currently attending their annual pilgrimage at their Got Kwer headquarters in Migori County, albeit in quiet after last year’s fete turned bloody, leaving five people dead and a vehicle torched.
The event in Suna West Sub County that has witnessed relative calm contradicts last year’s pilgrimage that was marked by deadly confrontation after a rival faction led by Pope Raphael Adika stormed the venue with a contingent of security officers, prompting chaos.
The faction led by Pope Lawrence Kalul started trooping to the hill on Friday, in the annual pilgrimage that commemorates the death and burial of the church founder Simeo Melkio Ondeto.
Sources privy of the happenings told Nation that Pope Raphael Adika could not attend the current pilgrimage due to his health.
However, his “deputy is currently holding a parallel event at Jerusalem Amoyo,” some twenty kilometers from the hill.
“We are not in constant touch with the other party after the court directed that we maintain the status quo. But we have information that the other party is holding their meeting at Jerusalem, where they have held the fete for years,” Pope Lawrence told Nation on phone.
He said the Migori county security detail has deterred Pope Adika’s faction from visiting the hill over security concerns following the deadly confrontations witnessed in September last year.
“They have been restrained from creating any form of interference with our pilgrimage and will be conducting their services at their usual site in Jerusalem. Even in the last intrusion was done in violation of the court order that called for maintenance of the status quo,” Pope Lawrence said.
Cardinal Chamalengo Ongaw said security lapses witnessed last year had been addressed and anyone wishing to participate in the ongoing pilgrimage was welcome.
“We have thermo guns at the main entrance as well as assorted hand washing points. Of utmost concern is the surging crowd that keep turning up. It is becoming difficult to control them in the wake of the Covid-19 situation,” Cardinal Onga’w told Nation.
“We are basically concerned with the health issues due to Covid -19. The security agents had assured us of a conducive atmosphere for prayers after they were deterred from visiting the hill,” he stated.
At the start of the pilgrimage last Friday, Cardinal Chamalengo Ongaw allied to Pope Kalul’s faction said they were grappling with containing the gathering, with a large number turning up without masks to protect themselves against Covid-19.
In September 2020, Legio Maria followers made their way out of the shrine where they had gone to observe the annual pilgrimage after a deadly confrontations erupted.
Pope Lawrence Kalul, whose faction is headquartered at the shrine, accused police of brutalising unarmed church members, who were reacting to provocation from intruders.
Tension started when members of Pope Adika’s faction stormed the shrine for prayers, sparking violent protest from a rival faction who accused him of planning to cart away the remains of church founder Melkio Ondetto.
Chanting “Legio opogore” (Legio Maria church is divided), the faction led by Pope Kalul made its way from Jerusalem Amoyo to Got Kwer where they stumbled on Adika’s faction.
Police had to use tear gas and fire live bullets to repulse the surging crowd that pelted the convoy with stones.
A car was burnt to a shell while several other vehicles, including a police van, were smashed.
On the other hand, Mr Adika who retreated to Jerusalem Amoyo with his followers after the confrontation accused his rivals of orchestrating the scuffles and branding him a warmonger.
Pope Kalul claimed the incident was an attempt to his life political hirelings, following the long protracted battles that had spiraled to divisions in the church.
“Those claiming legitimate leadership while sheltered in other camps are misleading the faithful,” he said then.
Hostility within the church dates back to 1990 after the death of Ondetto. In 1992, Timotheo Blassio Atila became pope until his death in 1998.
The third pope, Mr Lawrence Chiaji, took over until 2004, when he died and Mr Adika took over until 2009, when the battles for control of the church began, pitting Mr Adika against Mr Romanus Ong'ombe, who died in April.
In May 2019, the two leaders briefly ended their antagonism before it erupted again after their supporters failed to find common ground.
Earlier in June, Mr Adika went to court to challenge the legitimacy of Mr Kalul after he was appointed to take over from Pope Romanus Ongombe who died in March last year.
The Kisumu-based cleric, through his lawyer Mr Thomas Kwaga, sought to terminate the appointment of Mr Kalul as successor and legitimate leader of the church whose headquarters is in Got Kwer in Suna West Constituency.
The case is still in court.