A group of French Muslims decided to stand guard outside their town’s cathedral to protect it and show solidarity with Christians.
Muslim residents in the southern French town of Lodeve organised the initiative as a gesture of peace after a deadly Islamic extremist attack on a church in the French city of Nice.
They stood guard outside the Lodeve cathedral for the All Saints’ holiday weekend, and hope to do the same for Christmas.
The cathedral’s priest and churchgoers welcomed the gesture, which also comes amid tensions between France and the Muslim world.
French-born Muslim Elyazid Benferhat said his stomach turned when he heard about the attack in Nice. A man of peace and pragmatism, Mr Benferhat and a friend gathered a group of young Muslim men to stand guard outside their town’s cathedral.
Parishioners at the 13th-century church were deeply touched. The parish priest said their gesture gave him hope in a time of turmoil.
Mr Benferhat identified himself as “more French than anything”. While his mother was born in Algeria, he was born in France and grew up speaking only French.
“But I am also Muslim…and we have seen Islamophobia in this country, and terrorism,” he said.
“In recent years, I’ve had a pit in my stomach,” because every time Islamic extremist violence strikes France, he said, French Muslims face new stigmatisation, even though “we had nothing to do with it”.
He called the beheading of a teacher near Paris last month an act of “unbelievable, unprecedented cruelty”. Then when three people were killed last Thursday in the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, Mr Benferhat said he was so sickened that he wanted to do something “so that everyone wakes up”.
Mr Benferhat, who works for the French oil company Total and coaches at a local football club, talked to a Muslim friend who was in Nice that day. He said: “We had this idea. We needed to do something beyond paying homage to the victims. We said, we will protect churches ourselves.”
They recruited volunteers among their friends and at his football club, and guarded the church that night and again for Sunday mass. He said they also co-ordinated with local police, after France’s government promised to increase security at sensitive religious sites.
“It’s very good, these young people who are against violence,” said the cathedral’s priest, Fr Luis Iniguez.
When a local newspaper published a photo of parishioners posing with their Muslim guards, the priest hung it inside the Gothic cathedral, which serves as an anchor for town life.
“People were happy to see that,” Fr Luis said.
The small-town gesture drew national attention, and with it, online invective from some far-right voices.
But Mr Benferhat said the response has been “90% positive”.
His group is considering how to take the idea forward, and would like to do it again for Christmas, and for other towns to follow Lodeve’s lead. But for now all religious services in France are banned at least until December 1 to try to slow the fast-rising coronavirus infections.
Whatever he does next, he said “it will come from the heart”.