What you need to know:
- Last month, the church’s headquarters at Got Kwer shrine in Migori County, also referred to as Got Calvary (Calvary Hill), was turned into a battlefield as two rival factions clashed with police.
- Unknown to Mr Adika and his entourage comprising armed police officers, the faction led by Mr Kalul was armed and waiting to ambush them.
Their processions are a sight to behold. They march in bands, bellowing “Ave Maria”, “Baba” or “Messiah”.
They are the Legio Maria of Africa Church Mission — or simply, Legio Maria.
Last month, the church’s headquarters at Got Kwer shrine in Migori County, also referred to as Got Calvary (Calvary Hill), was turned into a battlefield as two rival factions clashed with police.
Eight people died in the fighting. The bloody clashes marred the church’s annual pilgrimage to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the death of its founder and spiritual leader, Simeo Melkio Ondeto.
It was the culmination of a vicious succession battle spanning close to three decades, which has seen the church dogged by deadly rivalries pitting the major factions. Tensions started when the leader of one faction, Pope Raphael Otieno Adika, led his followers for a prayer session at the headquarters, sparking violent protests from his opponents.
Chanting “Legio opogore” (the church is divided), the other faction, led by Pope Lawrence Ochieng’ Kalul, made its way from Jerusalem Amoyo to Got Kwer.
Unknown to Mr Adika and his entourage comprising armed police officers, the faction led by Mr Kalul was armed and waiting to ambush them.
Legio Maria rivalries date back to the mid-1960s during the founder’s reign. At stake in the current fight is the papacy, currently claimed by Mr Adika, who lives at St Peter’s Church in Manyatta, Kisumu, and new entrant Mr Kalul, based at Got Kwer. The church was started in the early 1960s by Ondeto and his mother, Mama Maria. It emerged at a time when most African countries were agitating for self-rule.
Among the faithful, the splits currently being witnessed are nothing new, since they were long prophesied by Ondeto himself. Dr Nicholas Keya, the church’s chairman-general, says, the first split can be traced to a charismatic prophetess, Gaudencia Aoko, who was empowered by the messiah himself after he exorcised demons from her and enabled her to destroy witchcraft.
“At the height of her missionary and religious works, Aoko had managed to popularise the church and even convert many people. But she would meet her waterloo when she attempted to force her way into trusteeship of the church,” Dr Keya told the Nation. Because of this, the messiah took away her spiritual powers. In protest, she left and founded the Communion Church.
After this episode, the movement experienced relative calm under the leadership of Ondeto.
But the seeds of discord had been sown, and more conflicts would emerge years later after his death in 1991. Speaking to the followers who know the church’s history, it is difficult to conclude which is the mainstream group since both uphold the founder’s teachings, the only difference being their locations.
Multiple interviews established that Ondeto predetermined the church leadership before he died. During his sermons, Dr Keya says, Ondeto had revealed who would ascend to the papacy and how they would succeed one another.
Insofar as the prophesy went, the line of succession of the first three popes had been made clear.
However, the third pope, Ondeto prophesied, would give the church a difficult time because of his presumed kinship with the founder — for he had all along considered Ondeto his younger brother. This was because Ondeto had been brought up in his father’s homestead.
The first pope, Timotheo Blassio Atila, took the reins when he was installed by Mama Maria in the 1960s. Soon after, Lawrence Pius Chiaji was appointed to deputise the pope as cardinal dean. This also made him next in line to succeed Pope Atila, said Dr Keya.
However, Pope Atila remained in the shadows and only began to serve as head after Ondeto’s death. He would lead the church until his death in 1998.
Meanwhile, immediately after Ondeto’s burial, the third in line to the papacy, Mr Wilson Owino Obimbo, took the church to court, demanding to inherit his wealth.
“Of course, this surprised the clergy and lay people,” said Dr Keya. The case went on for many years and was dismissed upon the death of Pope Atila.
Mr Chiaji succeeded Pope Atila as had been earlier planned. His elevation was readily accepted by the faithful, because Ondeto had announced it. He served as the head of the church for six years.
But, as with Pope Atila’s reign, Mr Owino, once again, returned to court to challenge Chiaji’s installation. He lost the case.
When Pope Chiaji died, Mr Owino was bypassed and the leadership handed to Mr Adika. As expected, this would usher in a new round of conflict.
When Adika assumed leadership, he made Cardinal Romanus Ong’ombe a patriarch, or jakwath, due to his age and gift of prayer. But, Mr Ong’ombe and his associates would later turn the tables on Mr Adika, denouncing his leadership on grounds that he was leading the church the wrong way.
So, in 2009, Mr Ong’ombe, declared himself pope, with his base at Got Kwer. And even though he was not on the spiritual leader’s predetermined list of popes, members of his faction argued, his installation was “inspired by the Holy Spirit”.
“The Holy Spirit revealed that he (Adika) would sway the faithful into a parallel faction, therefore, it directed that the then Cardinal Romanus Ong’ombe take over the church leadership as the new pope,” said Cardinal Joseph Ong’awo, the head of the church’s canon law. Seeing a chance to curry favour, Mr Owino, who had since been ejected from the church at St Peter’s Manyatta, joined forces with Ong’ombe.
On the other hand, the Adika-led faction cited the spiritual leader’s prophecy and declaration that “Owino would throw the church into conflicts and if that occurred, then he should be taken to court”. His ascendancy to the throne was to be challenged, the Adika faction reasoned.
In view of such confusion, argued Cardinal Protus Kulundu of Western Kenya, the succession path had been muddied. Two years into the court battle, Owino, then a cardinal, died.
Assumed the papacy.
While this was happening, Mr Adika was consolidating his grip on power. On his side were the secretary-general, Cardinal Nahashon Ondieko Nyakondo, and the chairman-general, who possessed church certificates and other documents as trustees.
In April last year, Ong’ombe died and Mr Kalul took over on an acting capacity. Later, he assumed the papacy.
This raised eyebrows because it did not follow the church’s laid-down procedures. But Mr Kalul saw the action as necessary to avert a leadership vacuum.
Even more urgent was the need to stop the Adika group from accessing Ondeto’s grave. The Kalul faction has often maintained that the Adika group wants to exhume Ondeto’s remains and rebury them at an undisclosed place, a claim they have denied.
According to Archbishop Lazarus Obera, who is allied to Mr Adika, the leadership wrangles ought not to be there as Ondeto had provided a succession plan. But it has remained difficult for members of the church that boasts of more than 500 deacons, 350 priests, 60 bishops, 21 archbishops and 17 cardinals, not to question perceived contradictions regarding lack of clarity surrounding the third and fourth popes.