“Inconsistent.” “Illogical.” “Incomprehensible.”
These are some of the words Bishop Bruce Myers used to describe new COVID-19 restrictions by the Quebec government limiting attendance in public places, which religious leaders across the province suggest unfairly target places of worship.
On Sept. 21, Myers joined other faith leaders in denouncing the government’s decision to limit attendance in places of worship to 25 to 50 people, at the same time as cinemas, theatres and concert halls can still host up to 250 people. The Anglican bishop of the diocese of Quebec endorsed an interfaith statement strongly criticizing the government for “once again putting places of worship in the same category as bars,” a connection religious leaders call “unjustified and false.”
Bishop Christian Rodembourg, president of the Quebec Assembly of Catholic Bishops, signed the statement in the name of the Quebec Interreligious Roundtable (QIR). Formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the QIR includes the Anglican Church of Canada and other Christian denominations as well as Muslim and Jewish groups.
The statement calls on the government to reclassify places of worship in the same category as concert halls and theatres, which would allow them to host up to 250 people. It also asks that a “frank and open channel of communications be established” between faith leaders and government authorities.
While faith communities had expected new measures in response to an uptick in COVID-19 infections across Quebec, Myers expressed bafflement at how the restrictions are being applied, which he said give rise to many inconsistencies.
He offered the example of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Quebec City, which in addition to hosting Christian worship is often used as a concert venue.
“Under the guidelines that have just been ratified by the government, we could have a concert in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity with 250 people,” Myers said. “But we’d be forbidden from having a Christian liturgy with more than 25 people—even though it’s the exact same building and both groups of people will be subject to the same precautions around physical distancing, wearing a face covering and hand sanitizing.
“In fact, in the church setting, we’re subjected to more restrictions and guidelines than, say, a concert would be. It’s this inconsistency and illogic which has gotten a reaction out of me, because it simply—objectively speaking—doesn’t make any sense.”
Another source of confusion and frustration, Myers said, is that faith organizations have been largely unable to engage in direct dialogue with the government. He notes that in other provinces, bishops have often been invited to meetings with public health officials or government representatives and have helped craft safety guidelines.
In Quebec, the government contacted faith organizations early on to help their communities understand the danger of the virus and to do their part in reducing transmission. But since then, Myers said, “it’s been pretty much silence.” Emails and phone calls to the government do not receive a response, he said, and letters go unanswered.
The lack of response from the government is particularly inexplicable, Myers said, given that “religious communities in Quebec have been incredibly proactive and very much in solidarity with the rest of society in trying to flatten the curve and get through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible.”
He pointed out that it was faith organizations that developed the first draft of safety protocols that were subsequently approved by Quebec public health authorities and the provincial government. The government’s restriction of attendance in worship, the bishop said, does not appear to be based on any scientific evidence.
“There hasn’t been a single documented, confirmed outbreak of COVID-19, to my knowledge, traced to a place of worship in Quebec,” Myers said. Meanwhile, “one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the province was at a bar here in Quebec City—and yet we’re subject to more stringent restrictions than bars and restaurants are.”
“Anglican churches went the extra mile in Quebec by remaining closed through the entire summer to in-person worship,” he added. “Even though we were permitted with limitations to open starting at the beginning of June, out of an abundance of caution, we chose to wait another couple months.”
Now, as the diocese has just started reopening churches, new restrictions which Myers said appear to be “completely illogical and incomprehensible” have been handed down.
Leaders of other faith communities on the QIR expressed similar grievances.
“There’s not a doctor in the world who will tell you that sitting in a bar is safer than sitting in a church,” said Rabbi Reuben Poupko, representative of the Council of Montreal Rabbis. “And yet somehow, the government decided that bars can remain open until 10 o’clock with some restrictions, and movie theatres can stay open—but somehow churches and synagogues should be treated differently. That disparity is troubling.”
Imam Hassan Guillet, representing the Muslim community in Quebec, said that faith communities have strived to ensure places of worship do not become centres for spreading the virus.
“Experience told us that the dangers come not from the places of faith; the danger came from other places,” Guillet said. “So to be treated like the other places that are contributing to the propagation of the virus, it’s unfair and it’s counterproductive.”
The closure of places of worship, he added, can have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health and social lives. While faith communities adopted safety regulations from the beginning to reduce transmission of COVID-19, the imam said, “we want our people to be respected and want our people to be able to practice their faith in freedom and dignity.”
Adriana Bara, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, said that while faith communities will respect decisions of the government, “we want to be taken in consideration and to be consulted…. I think the government has to take in consideration people before they decide on their behalf or for them. They have to speak with them.”
Religious leaders in Quebec were still awaiting the government’s response at the time this article was written. The same day the statement was released, Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix spoke at an outdoor press conference.
“We hope to be heard, and finally, after so many attempts, to have the opportunity to enter into direct communication with public health and government authorities,” Lacroix told reporters in French. “We want to continue to be united, partners. But for that, we have to talk to each other.”
Poupko notes that despite the difficult situation caused by the restrictions, “it has had one positive consequence, which is the religious groups of Quebec are working together in a way in which we never have before.”