Quebec Muslims 'need to be patient' in face of rejections, mosque founder says

Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre president Boufeldja Benabdallah speaks at a news conference to react to Alexandre Bissonnette guilty plea for the 2017 mosque shooting on March 28, 2018 at the hall of justice in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL -- When residents north of Montreal learned of a plan to transform a local church into a mosque and Islamic cultural centre, the reaction was so strong that parish leaders invoked the 2017 mass shooting of Muslims in Quebec City to justify putting the project on hold.

Members of the diocese of Trois-Rivieres, Que., located along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City, sent a litany of angry and threatening emails to the parish. Others spoke out during public consultations held earlier in October.

Rene Beaudoin, a parish member leading a committee on the future of the region's churches, said the outcry made diocesan Bishop Luc Bouchard think of the six Muslim men shot dead in a Quebec City mosque in 2017. The Bishop decided to stop the sale.

"He absolutely didn't want something like that happening in Trois-Rivieres," Beaudoin said in a recent interview. While no one threatened outright violence, he said, the parish wanted to be prudent.

"We got emails saying: 'The sale is not going to happen' and other things like that," Beaudoin said. "So the Bishop stopped the sale. He said he wanted to put out the fire."

The saga highlights the simmering tension in Quebec as the province confronts social and demographic upheaval.

Quebec's aging population and the fiercely secular identity among the francophone majority are driving churches across the province into bankruptcy. At the same time, ongoing immigration brings waves of newcomers whose diverse beliefs and perspectives assert an increasing influence over the province's identity.

In Trois-Rivieres, the underused St-Jean-de-Brebeuf church and the burgeoning Islamic cultural centre face each other from opposite sides of a main boulevard.

One is an imposing greystone structure with a grand entrance and a towering silver-coloured steeple; the other is a small, two-storey, semi-detached building with a modest, Islamic-style wooden arch that extends from the front door.

Beaudoin said the Muslim community was already using the church's basement for activities. When mosque leaders learned of that the church was struggling financially, they started negotiating with the parish to buy the building.

Both sides settled on a $500,000 price tag, Beaudoin said. But when the sale process moved to the public consultation stage, about 100 residents showed up on Oct. 8, according to local media.

"In a few years it will become a 'no-go zone' -- a place where Catholics will not be able to go," one man was quoted as saying, using a term commonly heard in right-wing media to describe Muslim-majority neighbourhoods in European cities.

"That's what you want for your children?" he said, according to Le Nouvelliste newspaper.

Mosque leaders in Trois-Rivieres did not return numerous requests for comment. But Boufeldja Benabdallah, president and co-founder of Quebec City's main mosque, said he understood what the community was going through.

Six worshippers were murdered by a gunman in Benabdallah's mosque in 2017. In a referendum about six months later, residents of a Quebec City suburb rejected a proposal to build the region's first Islamic cemetery -- a project Benabdallah and others had been working on for two decades.

"They acted very allergically to our proposal," Benabdallah said in an interview Wednesday. But Quebec City's mayor stepped in and began the process of selling a piece of city-owned land to the community for an eventual cemetery.

Benabdallah, who moved to Quebec from Algeria more than 50 years ago, said Muslims in the province "need to be patient."

"What does it serve to get mad, to yell?" he asked. "Let's accept the principle that people will react badly. We were disappointed but we continued to talk. That is essential."

Beaudoin said Islamophobia was a major reason driving opposition to the sale of the Trois-Rivieres church, but he also noted many Quebecers refuse to recognize the precarious situation of the province's Christian churches.

The committee he has been leading for a year is scheduled to release its report on the future of the region's Catholic churches. He wouldn't give details but suggested its conclusions aren't pretty.

But Benabdallah said time is on the side of the province's Muslim communities -- just as it was for the Italian, Jewish and Haitian immigrants who were once treated with hostility but eventually became part of the fabric of Quebec society.

"We are in a painful situation now but change always wins," he said. "Now it's the turn of the Muslims and tomorrow it will another group's turn."

As for the cemetery project, Benabdallah said bureaucracy is another reason to be patient. It's been two years since Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume promised the land for the cemetery, and the Muslim community is finally "weeks away" from completing the deal, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2019.