Coptic church harassed in leadup to papal visit

Coptic church harassed in leadup to papal visit

By Robert Frank

St. Peter and St. Paul Church is being squeezed between city hall and vandals as parishioners prepare for Orthodox Pope Tawadros II’s Jan. 23 visit to Pointe Claire.

The city shocked church officials in May by flatly rejecting their plan to build a new community centre on the site of a long-derelict elementary school at the corner of Sources and Lakeshore.

“We were going to have more green space than the site now has,” church deacon Shahir Guindi told The Suburban.

Since then, has been desecrated by graffiti and construction material was dumped on the site.

“We had to clean that up,” Guindi said in an interview.

Pointe Claire responded by pressuring the church.

“The city was all over us,” he said, “threatening to fine us thousands of dollars per day if it was not cleaned.”

“It has never been as clean as it is now,” he added.

Guindi said that former Pointe Claire Mayor Bill McMurchie had been an enthusiastic supporter.

Indeed, when The Suburban asked McMurchie last year about the project, he said that he welcomed the church’s plan to demolish the school.

“It is good news for the citizens in the area and consequently for the City of Pointe Claire,” McMurchie stated. “The previous owner wanted multi-story buildings which were not acceptable to the city.”

“Originally we were going to keep the church and demolish the school,” Guindi recalled. “The idea to demolish both and build an integrated church and community complex came from the city, not from us. We scrapped the plans that we had already spent more than $100,000 to develop and went back to the drawing board.”

“After the city bashed our proposal [Mayor Morris Trudeau] and council refused to meet us,” Guindi complained. “Instead, the interim city manager and an urban planner met four church leaders, including parish priest Fr. Peter Saad. They told us ‘we will be increasing the residential density of that lot’ and suggested that we sell the property.”

“They said ‘We outwaited the guys who wanted to rezone for Wal-Mart and we can just outwait you,’” he continued. “They didn’t understand that we’re not in this for the money. The church is not trying to make a profit. It is multi-generational. Our priority is youth. We invest heavily in young people.”

Guindi pointed out that the church went to well beyond what is legally required, in order to respect surrounding residents.

“We had planned an underground parking garage so visitors wouldn’t have to park on the street,” he explained. “The facilities would benefit the whole community and not just the church. The community centre was going to be the first phase of construction, because you can pray in a gym, but you can’t play in a church. The idea was to accommodate youth.”

According to Pointe Claire spokeswoman Marie-Pier Paquette-Séguin, Mayor Trudeau was too busy to speak to The Suburban about the church.

“I wasn’t a party to everything, so I prefer not to comment,” Councilor Paul Bissonnette, who has represented the district since 2005, told The Suburban. “I don’t know all the information. If I’m not sure of everything, if I don’t know everything, I’m not making comments.”

Bissonnette preferred that Pointe Claire’s new city manager Robert Weemaes speak to the issue. Weemaes arrived at Pointe Claire city hall Aug. 25, more than three months after the church decision.

Weemaes’ former employer, the city of Gatineau, reportedly paid him more than $400,000, after council unanimously voted to dismiss him last year. Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said at the time that the career municipal civil servant had published an open letter in 2011, critical of Gatineau’s city’s elected officials.

According to Guindi, the Pointe Claire is also giving the Pope Tawadros II the cold shoulder. Neither the mayor nor Councilor Bissonnette have accepted the church’s invitation a reception that expected to attract about 1,000 dignitaries—including federal, provincial and other municipal elected officials—to welcome the Orthodox pontiff on his first visit to Canada.

Copts have faced centuries of persecution in their native Egypt, particularly in recent years, until the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in a coup d’état last year.
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Pointe Claire has rezoned former St. Jeanne de Chantal Roman Catholic Church and school land. Now that a Coptic congregation has bought the property, the city wants to enforce rules that say only townhouses can be built there.
(Photo © Robert Frank)
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