'Caring for others:' Mosque, synagogue advise Alberta church to follow COVID-19 rules

·3 min read

EDMONTON — Leaders with a mosque and a synagogue in Edmonton have a message for an area Christian church that has been routinely holding services that violate COVID-19 restrictions.

While they sympathize with GraceLife Church's desire to bring worshippers together, they are asking its pastor and congregants to trust Alberta's public-health rules.

"I would encourage (GraceLife) to just consider, contemplate and reflect upon what God would want them to do in terms of caring for others, especially vulnerable Albertans," says Jamal Osman, vice-president of the Muslim Community of Edmonton Mosque.

The province and Alberta Health Services are not stopping those at GraceLife from practising their faith, he says.

"They're just saying, 'make sure there is social distancing'".

Before the pandemic, up to 300 Muslims squeezed into the mosque for a service every Friday, which is a sacred day of worship in Islam, Osman says.

Muslims typically pray standing shoulder-to-shoulder, he adds. Letting go of years of communal practice was difficult when COVID-19 hit, but the community understood.

"It's not our place to agree or disagree with another faith group and what they choose to do. I would just encourage (GraceLife) to consider the health and safety of everybody else."

Zolly Claman, a rabbi at Edmonton's Beth Israel Synagogue, lost his father-in-law to the virus early in the pandemic.

He says gathering is of the utmost importance in Judaism, and it's a struggle to keep up with religious practice while working with public-health guidelines.

"But COVID-19 regulations are designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and they definitely need to be followed."

GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove, just west of Edmonton, along with its pastor, James Coates, are to appear in court in May. They are charged with violating measures under the Public Health Act related to capacity limits, physical distancing and masking.

Coates was recently released from jail after 35 days, after he breached a bail condition to stop holding services that did not follow regulations. He pleaded guilty and was fined $1,500.

But the church hasn't stopped holding services in numbers that health officials have said are over the province's gathering limit.

On March 28, a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services said the church denied entry to health inspectors, who again noted breaches of COVID-19 rules.

GraceLife's website says it is to hold another service tomorrow on Easter Sunday.

RCMP, health and justice officials said public-health enforcement is under the discretion of local officers and health inspectors.

AHS said it is considering further enforcement options and hoped to schedule a meeting with GraceLife and its pastor before Easter. However, a church spokeswoman said no meeting was set.

The press secretary for Health Minister Tyler Shandro said it's a complex situation.

"Generally we defer questions on specific enforcement actions to AHS as we don’t dictate practice in any individual instance," Steve Buick said in an email.

AHS said there have been no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at the church and individual cases cannot be disclosed. However, in a video of a July service posted on the church's YouTube page, a speaker says "we have done in-house contact tracing for those of you who tested positive."

Claman and Osman say no members of their faith communities have contracted COVID-19 at their synagogue or mosque, because regulations are strictly enforced.

As active members in their communities, Osman and Claman confidently say they haven't heard of any outbreaks at mosques or synagogues across the province.

"You're never going to benefit from breaking regulations," says Claman.

"They're there to help."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2021

___

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press