The mayor of Shawinigan, Que. is admitting his council caved to "irrational fears" Tuesday when it refused to rezone an industrial park in order to allow a mosque to open.
Michel Angers said Friday city councillors were flooded with phone calls, letters, emails and text messages from across the province and beyond, imploring them not to allow the mosque.
"People are possessed with irrational fears, fed by the tumultuous times, particularly since the serious attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris," Angers said Friday at a news conference in the city of 50,000, 160 km northeast of Montreal.
Angers said refusing the mosque was a difficult decision that challenged his personal values, but he felt it was the right thing to do. He said just because people are afraid does not mean they are racist.
"People in Shawinigan aren't afraid of Muslims," he said.
"They know them. They're their neighbours. What they're afraid of is what could come from elsewhere."
The Muslim Cultural Centre of Shawinigan initially applied to the city for a zoning change in order to open a mosque for about 30 families to gather and pray.
There's no evidence the cultural centre has expressed radical views or has any ties to extremist groups.
Muslim group not giving up
Representatives of the group did not comment Friday but said earlier in the week they would continue their fight for the mosque, and they did not rule out challenging the council's decision in court.
Last month, the City of Montreal refused to grant a permit to imam Hamza Chaoui to open an Islamic cultural centre.
Chaoui had publicly advocated Shariah law and had ties to suspected Islamic extremists.
CBC's French-language service Radio-Canada spoke to some Shawinigan residents about the city's position.
"There are extremists, but we can't generalize," said one woman.
"I'm afraid, so I support the decision. I'm afraid of attacks," said another woman. "Muslims have the right to live just like us, as long as they stay very, very calm."
Angers wants the Quebec government to take action to reassure people they are safe and to try to bring different religious and cultural groups together for dialogue.