Muslim mason immortalized at French Catholic church

Thursday, September 9, 2010
Ahmed Benzizine stands Wednesday next to the gargoyle portraying him at St. Jean Cathedral in Lyon, France. (Laurent Cipriani ~ Associated Press)

PARIS -- A Muslim stonemason who spent nearly four decades helping to restore a Roman Catholic cathedral in France has been immortalized as a winged gargoyle peering out from its facade -- with the inscription "God is great" written in French and Arabic.

It was conceived as a symbol of interreligious friendship that reflects the city of Lyon's links to its large Muslim population. But a widely publicized outcry from a small extreme-right group has forced the Archdiocese of Lyon into damage control.

"This has nothing to do with religion. It's a sculptor who wants to pay homage to a construction site chief," said the Rev. Michel Cacaud, rector of the cathedral. "That's all."

In France, where Islam is the country's second religion, the government has worked to integrate Muslims into French culture, while at the same time confronting cases of Islamophobia, from the desecration of Muslim graves to attacks on mosques.

Ahmed Benzizine, who was born in Algeria, a former French colony, sees the gargoyle in his image as "a message of peace and tolerance."

"When I started to work in churches ... exactly 37 years ago, it was considered a sin that a Muslim enter a place of worship other than a mosque," he said.

He has worked off and on since 1973 at St. Jean Cathedral, which dominates the old city of Lyon and has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Benzizine is tickled to see his likeness on the facade of the cathedral, which dates to the 12th to 14th centuries and combines both Gothic and Roman architecture.

"It looks like me except for the ears," the 59-year-old said. "They're pointed like the devil. But the sculptor told me that angels have pointed ears, too."

He likes the idea that he'll still be around in stone when his friends are long gone.

"I tell my buddies ... I'm present in this stone so I can tell them if the neighborhood has changed," he said, laughing.

For Emmanuel Fourchet, the sculptor who immortalized Benzizine, "it was an occasion to pay tribute."

"I've known him for more than 20 years. He was already working in churches when I wasn't even a stonemason apprentice. This is an acknowledgment," he said.

Gargoyles, usually grotesque creatures with open mouths originally used as water spouts, dot the facades of cathedrals in France and elsewhere.

The sculptures, often part animal, were popular in medieval times and may also have been used to scare off evil, experts say.

Benzizine is not the first artisan to find his likeness on a cathedral, in his case with wings and clawed feet.

"It's a long tradition, to represent the artisans who worked on a site ... either for humor, derision or to pay them homage," Cacaud said.

The Benzizine gargoyle had been in place for about six months without drawing much notice until the extreme-right Identity Youth of Lyon began a campaign denouncing the likeness of a Muslim on a Catholic institution, and the inscription "God is great" in French and Arabic -- "Dieu est grand, Allahu akbar."

"Just the fact that it's written in Arabic, it shocked a minority" because it evokes Islam, Benzizine said.

But, he added: "God is great. It's not talking about Muhammed," the Muslim prophet and founder of the Islamic faith. He noted that he works on all historic monuments, whether they are cathedrals, mosques or synagogues.

Identity Youth of Lyon said on its website that the "clearly symbolic" inscription is "the manifestation of a conquering Islam."

"How many 'Ave Marias' are inscribed on how many mosques?" it asked.

The Archdiocese of Lyon has been quick to point out that the extremist group is alone in criticizing the gargoyle. No parishioners have complained, said Cacaud.

For the archdiocese, the gargoyle symbolizes two traditions: honoring artisans in a cathedral's stone work and embodying the Christian-Islamic dialogue that is part of Lyon's recent religious history.

In France's third-largest city, an archdiocese official is devoted to relations with Islam. In 2007, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, and a local Muslim leader, Azzedine Gaci, led a pilgrimage to Tibhirine, an Algerian village where seven Trappist monks were executed in 1996 by radical Islamic insurgents.

"There is no religion that doesn't say 'God is great,'" Cacaud said.

The gargoyle, he said, was merely a way to honor a faithful worker and "to say simply and solely 'thank you."'

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