Image: Ahmed Benzizine next to Lyon cathedral gargoyle
Philippe Desmazes  /  AFP/Getty Images
Ahmed Benzizine poses next to the gargoyle sculpted to look like him in this Monday photo. Benzizine, a Muslim, worked on the restoration of the cathedral in Lyon, France.  The sculpture stands over a sign saying "Allah Akhbar" (God is the Greatest) in both Arabic and French.
msnbc.com
updated 9/7/2010 12:05:12 PM ET 2010-09-07T16:05:12

Gargoyles — their contorted faces serving the dual purpose of warding off evil spirits and operating as rain gutters — are ubiquitous on the dramatic facades of Europe's Medieval cathedrals.

But a recent addition to the 12th century Roman Catholic Saint-Jean-Baptiste cathedral in Lyon, France, features a slightly less traditional face: one of a Muslim man.

The gargoyle, nicknamed "Ahmed," perches above an inscription of "Allah Akhbar," or "God is the Greatest," in both French and Arabic, the AFP news agency reported.

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The sculpture is the work of stonemason Emmanuel Fourchet, who modeled the figure after his friend and colleague Ahmed Benzizine.

Fourchet decided to use Benzizine as a model in a nod to the tradition of the trade, in which stonemasons use associates as inspiration, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported. The practice dates back to the cathedral's original construction, the newspaper said.

Benzizine, 59, worked on the renovation and has been restoring religious structures for several decades.

"It could have been the face of a Portuguese man or anyone else but it happens to be an Algerian Muslim Arab — my friend Ahmed," the Telegraph quoted Fourchet as saying.

Five million Muslims, the largest Islamic minority in Western Europe, live in France, AFP reported. French Muslims are mainly of North African descent.

'Muslims take over our churches'
But a conservative Roman Catholic group, Jeunes Identitaires Lyonnais, criticized the addition, AFP said.

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

The AFP report said the leader of Lyon's main mosque, Kamel Kabtane, had described the gargoyle as "another tribute to the friendship between Muslims and Christians in Lyon."

"Let those who criticize it tear it down," Benzizine said. "To say 'God is Great' whether referring to Judaism, Christianity or Islam is the same thing, I don't see the problem," he told the Telegraph. The report said workers installed the sculpture, one of hundreds of gargoyles featured on the building, last month.

Benzizine also told the AFP that he is a Frenchman, a practicing Muslim and a veteran of historic monument restoration. "I could work on mosques or synagogues as well," he told the AFP.

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"I have a lot of respect for sacred places," he added, noting the stonemasons' tradition of caricature.

Other gargoyles 'would shock them far more'
Church officials said they did not authorize the gargoyle, but don't take issue with it, either.

Cathedral spokesman Pierre Durieux called the sculpture an "ecumenical symbol," the AFP reported, and said members of Jeunes Identitaires Lyonnais are "no more Christian than anyone else."

Durieux noted that historically, "gargoyles were always profane figures and a chance for irony and satire." He also pointed out that the figure is part of the church's exterior, not featured inside.

The church rector, the Rev. Chanoine Michel Cacaud, confirmed to the Telegraph that the building crew did not ask for his "explicit authorization," but said, "when they told me about this friendly nod to Ahmed, I was very happy."

"If I took these people who are so offended by this beautiful gesture on a tour of the cathedral, I could show them gargoyles that would shock them far more," Cacaud told the Telegraph. "Ones that are frankly erotic."

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