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French priest freed after trial for ‘housing homeless’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons | The Sainte-Claire Chruch in Saint-Etienne, France

A French priest put on trial for providing shelter for homeless migrants in his church was cleared of any wrongdoing by a judge on Wednesday.

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Father Gérard Riffard, 70, had for several years used the church hall in his parish in Saint-Etienne, southeast France, to provide temporary shelter to migrants in the area as they awaited the results of asylum requests.

However, a local bylaw introduced in 2013 banned the church being used for accommodation as it did not meet required safety standards.

A tribunal was held in June this year in which state prosecutors demanded Father Riffard be fined close to 12,000 euros for 239 counts of violating the bylaw.

But to the applause of around 20 of the priest’s supporters in the courtroom in Saint-Etienne Wednesday, the judge acquitted Father Riffard of all charges, ruling that the right to set up emergency shelter was a “fundamental freedom” under a French law introduced in 2012.

If the local authority is unable to meet the demand for the accommodation of the homeless, it should allow any other person or entity with the capacity to provide shelter to do so, Judge Henry Helfre said.

“It is paradoxical that the state is pursuing Father Riffard for doing what it already should have done itself,” he added.

He also cited a January 2013 European Union directive that allows for the relaxing of building safety standards when providing emergency accommodation.

Following the verdict, Father Riffard said the ruling "recognised that the state must live up to its responsibilities”.

The church hall continues to provide shelter to homeless migrants, he said, with around 50 adults and 14 children currently using the premises for shelter.

“Some stay 15 days, others have been there for a year and a half,” he added, with most coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bishop Dominique Lebrun of Saint-Etienne said in a statement that he "welcomed the ruling (...) which recognises matters of necessity override normal standards."

"Along with Father Gérard Riffard, I wish that a climate of understanding and dialogue develops as a result of this ruling," said the Bishop of Saint-Etienne.

Saint-Etienne’s public prosecutor, Jean-Daniel Regnauld, told AFP the state would appeal the court’s decision.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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