Montreal

Religious leaders ask Quebec to ease restrictions even as new COVID-19 cases jump

In orange zones, no more than 25 worshippers are now permitted to gather in places of worship. "People are really feeling this is discrimination against faith; against worshipping," said Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix.

'People are really feeling this is discrimination against faith,' cardinal says of new cap on attendance

Father Rico Passero from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grimsby has taped photos of some 400 parishioners to the church pews so the community will feel like it's together for mass. (St. Joseph Catholic Church)

Religious leaders in Quebec are speaking out against new limits on how many people can gather in churches and other places of worship. 

On Sunday, the province reduced the number of people who can gather in public places, including places of worship, from 250 to 50 people in green or yellow zones in response to a surge in cases of COVID-19. 

In orange zones, such as Montreal and Quebec City, no more than 25 worshippers are now permitted to gather in places of worship, such as churches, synagogues and mosques. 

In settings that involve sitting and little talking, however, such as movie theatres or concert halls, the current 250-person limit remains in place.

In a statement on Monday, a group of leaders from various faiths said they want houses of worship to be put in that category. 

Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix wants the government to review its "erroneous" decision. 

"They put us in a category of bars," said Lacroix, vice-president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec and spokesperson for the Quebec Interreligious Working Group.

"People are really feeling this is discrimination against faith; against worshipping."

He says there have been no outbreaks linked to religious services in Quebec, and many places of worship go beyond the government's sanitary measures. 

"The health of the people is what's important to us," Lacroix said. 

After counting the volunteers who prepare and clean the church, the minister, priest, deacon and organist, Lacroix says some churches will only have room for 10 congregants under the new restrictions. 

The government did not consult with religious organizations before announcing the new sanitary restrictions, Lacroix said. Members of his organization have received hundreds of calls and emails from people who attend religious services expressing their disappointment. 

"They feel this is absolutely not right."

In the first lockdown that began last March, many religious institutions began holding virtual services, but Lacroix says if at all possible, meeting in person is crucial for a celebration of faith. 

"It's part of life, and part of expressing your faith," Lacroix said. 

Alan DeSousa, borough mayor for Saint-Laurent, added his voice to their cause on Tuesday. 

He said he's attended many different religious services in recent weeks, and each one provided space for physical distancing, masks, and made efforts to enforce sanitary measures — not to mention attendance is down in many religious institutions.

Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix is vice-president of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec and spokesperson for the Quebec Interreligious Working Group. (Radio-Canada)

He said the government should consider allowing religious activities to fall under the same category as theatres.

Religion can offer solace for people who are having a hard time dealing with the pandemic, DeSousa said. 

"It would be good for the mental health of many of our residents."

Quebec's Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CBC News. 

With files from Quebec AM and CBC Montreal Daybreak

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