PARIS (AP) – A French Muslim, Elyazid Benferhat had a colic when he heard about a deadly attack by a Muslim extremist on a church in Nice. Then he decided to act.
A self-proclaimed peacemaker and pragmatist, Benferhat and a friend gathered a group of Muslim youths to stand guard outside the town’s cathedral for All Saints weekend, to symbolize it and show solidarity with those who go to Catholic churches.
The parishioners at the 13th century church in the southern town of Lodeve were deeply moved. The parish priest said their gestures gave him hope in times of turmoil.
Benferhat, speaking with a distinctive southern French accent, identifies 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’m also Muslim … and we have seen the fear of Islam in this country, and terrorism,” he told the Associated Press.
“In recent years, I have had intestinal cramps,” he said, because every time extremist Muslim violence attacks France, French Muslims face new stigma, even though “they I have nothing to do with it ”.
He called the beheading of a teacher near Paris last month – targeted because he showed his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a debate over freedom of expression – an act of “unbelievable, unprecedented cruelty.”
Then, when three people were killed last Thursday at Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, Benferhat said that he was so sick that he wanted to do something “to get everyone up.”
Benferhat, who works for French oil company Total and coach of a local football club, said to a Muslim friend who was in Nice that day, “and we were have this idea. We need to do something about it besides showing respect to the victims. We said we would protect the churches by ourselves.
They recruited volunteers among their friends and at his soccer club, and guarded the church that night and several times during Sunday Mass. He said they also coordinated with local police, after the French government promised to increase security at sensitive religious sites.
“Very well, young people are fighting this violence,” the church’s priest, Father Luis Iniguez, told the AP.
When a local newspaper published a picture of parishioners posing with their Muslim guards, Iniguez hung it inside the Gothic cathedral, which serves as an anchor point for town life. “People are very happy to see that, especially amid recent concerns about tensions between France and the Muslim world, alongside ongoing viral concerns,” he said.
The small-town gesture caught the nation’s attention and with it an online outcry from some far-right voices.
But Benferhat said the response was “90% positive.”
His team is looking at how to implement this idea, and wants to re-implement it at Christmas, and other towns will follow Lodeve’s lead. But for now, all religious services in France are banned at least until 1 December to try to slow down the rapidly growing virus infection.
Whatever he does next, he says, “It will come from the heart.”