09/05/2014 01:54 EDT | Updated 11/05/2014 05:59 EST

Coptic church says Pointe-Claire gave it the run-around on rezoning

Members of a West Island Coptic church are confused and frustrated that their plan to build a community centre has been put on hold by the City of Pointe-Claire.

Ireini Ghobri said she and her fellow congregation members at St-Peter and St-Paul Coptic Orthodox Church hold activities nearly every day of the week all over the city and would like to have a central meeting place to have them.

The church planned to demolish an old school on the land and replace it with a community centre so that they could consolidate all their activities in one place.

But the city of Pointe-Claire is invoking zoning regulations, meaning the church’s plans to build their community centre are now on ice.

Zoning trouble

Shahir Guindi, a West Island native and member of the church, said multiple talks with city administrators about the plans led them to believe Pointe-Claire was in favour of the project.

Several members who were present at the meetings with the city told CBC Daybreak’s Shari Okeke that officials promised land would be rezoned to allow for the building project.

The church members said administrators they met even suggested that the church knock down both the old school and church on their property.

And so they were shocked to learn at a city council meeting that there were no plans to rezone the residential land in order to facilitate building the community centre.

“We don't understand it, because up until then we had been led by the city administration itself to go down a certain path which included demolishing the decrepit eyesore which is at the entrance of Pointe-Claire on Lakeshore (Road) and turning that into a beautiful construction for the whole community,” Guindi said.

Welcoming church

Guindi said the church prides itself on its spirit of openness, and that it is welcoming to people who are not Coptic. It is also a unique church because it prays almost exclusively in English, unlike most Coptic churches in Montreal which pray in English, French, Arabic and the ancient Coptic language.

Vera Fares said her fiancé was recently baptized at the church.

“He's from the Caribbean so he was introduced because of our relationship, but I felt that he was welcomed instantaneously and he developed a relationship with so many people  because they're so welcoming and open-minded,” Fares said.

Guindi said the church’s community centre — which was slated to include a gym, a social space for parties and other activity rooms — would be open to all Pointe-Claire residents.

He suspects the city is hoping the church will give up and sell the land.

City says church was mistaken

Guindi and his fellow congregation members said requests for a meeting with the mayor or a city councillor have fallen on deaf ears.

Councillor Paul Bissonnette declined an interview with CBC News, saying he didn’t know enough about the file to comment.

City manager Robert Weemaes, however, said he doesn’t know why the congregation feels it was misled.

“Our discussions always have been clear: this is a residential site and will stay residential,” Weemaes said.

The land was zoned as residential in 2011. It had previously been zoned for public institutions to reflect the church and school that once operated on the land.

The St-Peter and St-Paul Coptic Orthodox Church took ownership of the property in 2013.

Congregation member suspicious

Guindi said he suspects Pointe-Claire has ulterior motives for the land and alleges that the city’s administrators are hoping the church will give up and sell.

He said the city has spoken about plans to attract developers and increase residential density by allowing taller apartment and condo buildings.

Pointe-Claire insists that is not the case. City manager Weemaes said he was sorry the church believed that, but also said that he hopes a developer builds on the land beside the church.

“It’s a nice place. It’s near the highway, it’s on the side of the lake, it’s very easy access, so we believe somebody will eventually develop it,” Weemaes said.

But in order for that to happen, the church would need to sell the land.

To that, Weemaes said, “I suppose. I can’t answer for that part.”

No VIPs to meet Coptic pope

Guindi of the Coptic church said he feels targeted by the city.

He said the church got a fine for having too-high shrubs and that the mayor and councillor declined an invitation to meet the Coptic pope when he visits at the end of September.

“For the mayor and councilman to not be there is humiliating for us quite frankly, because I assure you the VIPs in Mississauga will be there when the pope arrives, and the VIPs in Ottawa will be there, and the VIPs in Vancouver will be there, and in Newfoundland and everywhere else where the pope travels, the VIPs will be there,” Guindi said.