Ahmed the 'Muslim' gargoyle adorns French cathedral

Ahmed the 'Muslim' gargoyle adorns French cathedral

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A Muslim stonemason adds his signature to Lyon's Saint Jean Cathedral as a gargoyle named Ahmed.

Lyon -- The gargoyles grinning down from Lyon's majestic Saint Jean Cathedral may in recent centuries have lost their power to intimidate sinners, but a new arrival has perturbed some hardliners.

In line with medieval tradition, a stonemason who worked on the edifice's latest renovation has himself been immortalised in stone -- in this case, as a new gargoyle named Ahmed, perched over the inscription "Allahu Akbar".

The statue is named after Ahmed Benzizine, a Muslim who has worked for the firm carrying out the work for 30 years. Church officials have no problem with the caricature, but a local conservative group is angry.

This new gargoyle put on the the cathedral looks like stonemason Benzizine Ahmed, the Muslim foreman who led the restoration of the tower and worked on the cathedral for 30 years.

Stonemason Emmanuel Fourchet decided to carve "Ahmed" as a gargoyle -- a demonic medieval statue that hangs from a cathedral as both a form of rain gutter and an admonishment to the faithful -- in tribute to his friend.

The "God is Great" inscription underneath, in both French and Arabic, is a tribute to his colleague's faith and was not meant as a slight to Christian worshippers who still use Saint Jean eight centures after it was built.

"I'm a Frenchman and a practising Muslim, and I've always worked on historic monuments. I could work on mosques or synagogues as well," Benzizine told AFP after a hardline website attempted to stir controversy.

"I have a lot of respect for sacred places," he said, adding that it has been a tradition since the church was first built in the 12th century for stonemasons to appear in caricature form as gargoyles.

While Ahmed has adorned the Gothic masterpiece since summer without raising eyebrows, it was attacked by Jeunesse Identitaire Lyonnais, a right-wing group who claims to defend the region's traditional "ethnic and cultural identity".

"While in many Muslim countries Christianity is forbidden and Christians are persecuted, in Lyon Muslims take over our churches at their leisure with the complicity of Catholic authorities," the group complained on its website.

Lyon cathedral dismissed the charge.

Church spokesman Pierre Durieux descibed the gargoyle as an "ecumenical symbol" and said the youth group is "no more Christian than anyone else."

"There was no opposition, and no particular authorisation on the behalf of the Church," he said. "In history, gargoyles were always profane figures and a chance for irony and satire. In any case, they're not inside the church."

The gargoyle, in honour of Ahmed, stands over a sign saying "Allah Akbar" (God is Greatest) in both Arabic and French language.

Kamel Kabtane, rector of Lyon's main mosque, described the gargoyle as "another tribute to the friendship between Muslims and Christians in Lyon."

France has the largest Islamic minority in Western Europe, with an estimated five million Muslim citizens and residents, mainly of North African descent.

Although the state is officially secular and citizens of all faiths are legally equal, moves by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government to ban the full face veil worn in some Islamic traditions have raised tension.

Jerome Daquin / AFP / Expatica

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