PARIS (AP) — With banners reading “Let us Pray” and “We Want Mass,” Catholic protesters held scattered demonstrations around France on Sunday to demand that authorities relax virus lockdown measures to allow religious services.
In the western city of Nantes, hundreds gathered in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, some kneeling on the rain-soaked pavement, according to local broadcaster France Bleu. Similar gatherings were reported or planned in the eastern city of Strasbourg, Bordeaux in the southwest, and outside the Saint-Louis Cathedral in Versailles.
Devout Catholics sang hymns and protested for hours Friday at the landmark Saint-Sulpice Church on the Left Bank of Paris at a similar demonstration — but Paris police said the protest didn’t respect social distancing and violated an order against praying in the streets, so they banned a similar rally planned for Sunday.
With more confirmed virus cases in than any other European country, predominantly Roman Catholic France banned Mass and other religious services for the month of November as part of nationwide partial lockdown measures aimed at reining in infections and relieving pressure on hospitals. Churches and other religious sites remain open for individual visitors to come and pray.
The vicar general of the Paris archdiocese, Benoist de Sinety, urged churchgoers to respect the rules, saying Sunday on BFM television that such protests “aren’t useful.” However he called Mass “a vital necessity” and called it a kind of “suffering to not be able to go.”
While France is seeing signs that the current surge may be reaching its peak, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin appealed to believers to watch services online and avoid public gatherings while the lockdown is place. In a statement published on Twitter, he said he would meet Monday with religious leaders to discuss how the government may eventually open up services again, notably amid pressure to allow in-person Christmas celebrations.
One of France’s earliest virus clusters was traced to an evangelical religious gathering near Strasbourg in February. The region’s ensuing outbreak quickly overwhelmed hospitals, forcing France to send patients to neighboring Germany and Switzerland for treatment and prompting the French military to build its first-ever peacetime field hospital to relieve saturated facilities.
To date, France has reported 44,246 virus-related deaths, and today COVID-19 patients occupy 96% of the country’s standard intensive care unit capacity.