A group of young French-born Muslim men have stood guard outside their town’s cathedral, symbolically protecting it and showing solidarity with Catholics during All Saints’ weekend.
Elyazid Benferhat said his stomach turned when he heard of the deadly Islamic extremist attack on a church in Nice last week, so decided to gather a group of friends to stand guard at the 13th century church in the southern French town of Lodeve.
The parish priest said he was touched by the gesture, and that it gave hope in a time of deep turmoil.
‘Pit in my stomach’
Speaking to Associated Press, Benferhat – who said he was “more French than anything”, added: “But I am also Muslim… and we have seen Islamophobia in this country, and terrorism.
“In recent years, I’ve had a pit in my stomach,” he said, saying that French Muslims face new stigmatisation even though “we had nothing to do with it”.
France has been rocked by a spate of terror attacks, coupled with a dramatic second-wave of the coronavirus pandemic, in recent weeks.
Benferhat said the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty near Paris last month – because he had shown his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a debate on free speech – was an act of “unbelievable, unprecedented cruelty”.
‘We will protect it ourselves’
When, last week, three people were stabbed to death in the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, Benerfat – who coaches at a local football club and works for French oil company Total – said he felt compelled to act “so that everyone wakes up”.
That day, he spoke to a friend who had been Nice. “We had this idea,” he told AP. “We needed to do something beyond paying homage to the victims. We said, we will protect the church ourselves.”
They recruited volunteers, and guarded the church that night and across the weekend – coordinating with local police.
“It’s very good, these young people who are against violence,” the cathedral’s priest told AP. “People were happy to see that.”
Despite some online hate from far-right trolls, Benferhat said the response has been “90% positive”, and that his response to extremism will always “come from the heart”.