Gesture is both a sign of solidarity and a way to fight prejudice, says organizer.
In a show of solidarity with French Catholics — but also as a way to combat prejudice against their own community — some Muslims in France have begun to stand guard outside Catholic churches.
A horrific attack inside the Catholic cathedral in Nice recently prompted Elyazid Benferhat, a Muslim born in France, to gather friends and stand watch outside their own local Catholic church during All Saints Day liturgies. Benferhat, whose mother is from Algeria but who considers himself “more French than anything,” was already troubled by instances of attacks carried out by Muslims against French citizens, including the October 29 beheading of a teacher who had shown his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
For Benferhat, the attack in Nice, in which three persons were killed, was the last straw.
“A self-described man of peace and pragmatism, Benferhat and a friend gathered a group of young Muslim men to stand guard outside their town’s cathedral for the All Saints’ holiday weekend, to symbolically protect it and show solidarity with Catholic churchgoers,” the Associated Press reported. “Parishioners at the 13th-century church in the southern town of Lodeve were deeply touched. The parish priest said their gesture gave him hope in a time of turmoil.”
He said that each time there’s an act of Islamic extremist violence in France, Muslims in the country are stigmatized anew, even though “we had nothing to do with it.”
“We needed to do something beyond paying homage to the victims,” Benferhat said. “We said, ‘We will protect churches ourselves.’”
Benferhat and a friend recruited volunteers among their friends and at the football club where he coaches. They guarded the church on the eve of All Saints Day and also for Sunday Mass on the feast day itself. He said they coordinated with local police, after France’s government promised to increase security at sensitive religious sites, according to the AP.
“It’s very good, these young people who are against violence,” Fr. Luis Iniguez, a priest of the cathedral, told the wire service.
Benferhat said his group is considering repeating the gesture for Christmas, but they will have to wait at least until December 1, as all houses of worship in France are again closed because of a recent spike in the coronavirus.