The half-century-old Easter procession at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Montreal's Outremont district has been cancelled, caught in the crosswinds of a conflict over faith and public space.
In an unusual move, the borough of Outremont has banned street parades and processions in response to an escalation of tensions involving another religious group – its ultra-orthodox community of Hasidic Jews.
This marks the latest dispute between the expanding Hasidic community and its mostly secular neighbours in Outremont, a central borough in Montreal that's home to Quebec's intellectual and political class.
The mayor and a majority of councillors in Outremont voted Monday to put processions on ice following a nasty confrontation last month between a municipal councillor known for her dogged surveillance of the Hasidic community, and members of that community. The clash – taped and posted on YouTube – degenerated into shouting, name-calling and an intervention by police.
In response, Outremont decided that it wouldn't allow a Hasidic sect to hold a street procession later this month to mark the visit of a grand rabbi from New York State; the procession would have taken place after 10 p.m. and involved up to 1,000 followers.
"I don't think this is the time to do night processions," Mayor Marie Cinq-Mars said in an interview on Thursday. "We have to be prudent for now. Tensions can't keep rising. I have to face my responsibilities."
The borough notes that it's home to a high concentration of places of worship from a variety of religious denominations, and the moratorium applies to all of them. That means the freeze, which will remain in place until June 1 while the borough reviews its policies, is having a spillover effect.
The procession at St. Nicholas normally takes hundreds of parishioners outside the church after midnight between April 14 and 15, in a candlelit procession around the church that spills into the street. Members of the church say no one in the neighborhood has ever complained about the processions, which began in 1964.
Father George Lagodich, vice-rector of the church, said the conflict between Outremont and the Hasidic community "has nothing to do with us."
"It's insanity," he said. "Our procession is peaceful and quiet. It's not just a celebration, it's an integral part of our service."
Ms. Cinq-Mars says she's sorry the moratorium has affected the church, but she insists that the measure can't be applied selectively. "We have to treat everyone equally. If we have a moratorium, we can't do it for one group and not the other."
The Hasidic community isn't happy about the move either. Mayer Feig, who speaks for the community, says members are weighing a legal challenge. "You can't stop people from celebrating their holidays and holding processions," Mr. Feig said. "We have rights and our rights are being violated."
He said it was regrettable that the Russian Orthodox Church was being "dragged into this."
The conflict underscores wider tensions with Outremont's Hasidic community, an insular group that accounts for a fifth to a quarter of the population of the district. Last year, residents voted in a referendum to reject the expansion of a Hasidic synagogue at the border with Montreal.
To the mayor, however, tensions are being exacerbated by a small group of residents who scrutinize the Hasidic Jews' behaviour in the belief they flout municipal bylaws. The perception is painstakingly documented and aired on blogs and other forums, feeding public anger, she said.
"It's putting oil on the fire," Ms. Cinq-Mars said. "I believe co-habitation is possible while respecting everyone. I've always believed in it."
The confrontation that led to this week's moratorium involved independent Outremont Councillor Céline Forget, who has been frequently involved in recording the movements of the Hasidic community. She says it's to document transgressions to municipal rules over parking, noise and other nuisances; the Hasidic community describes it as harassment.