Court orders France to rethink 30-person limit on worship

International

Church-goers wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus lineup outside the Notre-Dame-des-Champs church in Paris, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. French churches, mosques and synagogues can open their doors again to worshippers – but only a few of them, as France cautiously starts reopening after a second virus lockdown. Some churches may defy the 30-person limit they feel as too unreasonable, and other sites may stay closed until they can reopen for real. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS (AP) — France’s highest administrative court on Sunday ordered a rethink of a 30-person attendance limit for religious services put in place by the government to slow down the spread of coronavirus.

The measure took effect this weekend as France relaxes some virus restrictions, but it faced opposition by places of worship and the faithful for being arbitrary and unreasonable. Even before the ruling, several bishops had announced they would not enforce the restrictions and some churches were expected to defy it.

The Council of State has ordered that Prime Minister Jean Castex modify the measure within three days.

French churches, mosques and synagogues started opening their doors again to worshippers this weekend — but only a few of them, as France cautiously starts reopening after its latest virus lockdown.

Many people expressed irritation outside several Paris churches where priests held services for groups that numbered over 30.

“People respected social distancing perfectly, each to his place and with enough space so I don’t think there’s anything to worry about here,” Laurent Frémont told The Associated Press on his way home after Mass.

To attend Mass, they had to book tickets online and give their names on their way in. However, the church’s protocol didn’t seem to help limit the number of people inside the building.

Asked whether they would stay if the crowd was too large, most said they would.

“I really think you couldn’t do better from a sanitary point of view,” said Humbline Frémont.

For some, the new rules stirred up fears. French Catholics were sharing rules and recommendations on social media for how to behave if the police arrive at a church for a head count.

Farid Kachour, secretary general of the group running the mosque of Montermeil, a heavily immigrant suburb northeast of Paris, says that his mosque simply wouldn’t open with too few people permitted.

“We can’t choose people” allowed to enter for prayer. “We don’t want to create discontent among the faithful,” he said.

Kachour noted that Muslims pray five times a day, further complicating the situation. To respect the rules, the mosque would need 40 services a day to allow all the faithful to pray, he said.

Places of worship were allowed to continue during France’s latest nationwide lockdown, which is coming to an end in December, but regular prayer services were banned due to health concerns. Around the world, some religious services have been linked to coronavirus clusters, including superspreading events.

France has reported over 52,000 virus-related deaths, the third-highest pandemic death toll in Europe after Britain and Italy.

“Non-essential” shops reopened in France on Saturday, museums and cinemas will reopen on Dec. 15 but bars and restaurants will stay closed for indoor dining until Jan. 20.

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Alex Turnbull and Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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