Court orders France to rethink 30-person limit

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PARIS – The highest administrative court in France ordered Sunday to rethink the limit of presence of 30 people at religious services put in place by the government to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The measure went into effect over the weekend as France eased some viral restrictions, but it has faced opposition from places of worship and worshipers for being arbitrary and unreasonable. Even before the decision, several bishops had announced they would not enforce the restrictions and some churches were expected to challenge it.

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

French churches, mosques and synagogues started opening their doors again to worshipers over the weekend – but only to a few, as France cautiously begins to reopen after its latest virus lockdown.

Many people expressed their irritation in front of several Parisian churches where priests organized services for groups of more than 30 people.

“People respected social distance perfectly, everyone in their place and with enough space so I don’t think there is anything to worry about here”, declared Laurent Frémont The Associated Press on his way home after mass.

To attend mass, they had to book tickets online and give their name when entering. However, church protocol did not seem to help limit the number of people inside the building.

When asked if they would stay if the crowd was too big, most responded that they would.

“I really don’t think we could do better from a health point of view,” said Humbline Frémont.

For some, the new rules have raised concerns. French Catholics were sharing rules and recommendations on social media for how to behave if police arrive at a church for a count.

Farid Kachour, secretary general of the group leading the mosque in Montermeil, a heavily immigrant suburb northeast of Paris, said his mosque simply would not open with too few people allowed.

“We cannot choose the people” allowed to enter for prayer. “We do not want to create discontent among the faithful,” he said.

Kashur noted that Muslims pray five times a day, which further complicates the situation. To comply with the rules, the mosque would need 40 services a day to allow all worshipers to pray, he said.

Places of worship were allowed to continue during France’s last national lockdown, which ends in December, but regular prayer services have been banned due to health concerns. Around the world, some church services have been linked to coronavirus clusters, including mass media events.

France has reported more than 52,000 deaths linked to the virus, the third highest number of deaths from a pandemic in Europe after Britain and Italy.

“Non-essential” stores reopened in France on Saturday, museums and cinemas will reopen on December 15, but bars and restaurants will remain closed for indoor dining until January 20.

Alex Turnbull and Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.

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