gargoyle - AP - Sept 8 2010
A gargoyle on top of the Saint Jean cathedral in Lyon, France with the inscription 'God is Great' in French and Arabic. Photo by AP
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Muslim mason Ahmed Benzizine stands in front the gargoyle portraying him at the Saint Jean cathedral in Lyon, France. Photo by AP

A Muslim stonemason who spent nearly four decades helping to restore a Roman Catholic cathedral in France has been immortalized as a winged gargoyle peering out from its facade - with the inscription 'God is great' written in French and Arabic.

It was conceived as a symbol of inter-religious friendship that reflects the city of Lyon's links to its large Muslim population. But a widely publicized outcry from a small extreme-right group has forced the Archdiocese of Lyon into damage control.

"This has nothing to do with religion. It's a sculptor who wants to pay homage to a construction site chief," said the Rev. Michel Cacaud, rector of the cathedral. "That's all."

In France, where Islam is the country's second religion, the government has worked to integrate Muslims into French culture, while at the same time confronting cases of Islamophobia, from the desecration of Muslim graves to attacks on mosques.

Ahmed Benzizine, who was born in Algeria, a former French colony, sees the gargoyle in his image as a message of peace and tolerance.

"When I started to work in churches... exactly 37 years ago, it was considered a sin that a Muslim enter a place of worship other than a mosque," he said.

He has worked off and on since 1973 at St. Jean Cathedral, which dominates the old city of Lyon and has been honored as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Benzizine is tickled to see his likeness on the facade of the cathedral, which dates to the 12th to 14th centuries and combines both Gothic and Roman architecture.

"It looks like me except for the ears, the 59-year-old told The Associated Press. They're pointed like the devil. But the sculptor told me that angels have pointed ears, too."

He likes the idea that he'll still be around in stone when his friends are long gone. "I tell my buddies... I'm present in this stone so I can tell them if the neighborhood has changed," he said, laughing.