CASTELLANE, France - French attempts to cut a larger than life guru
down to size were thwarted Wednesday when a condemned white statue of the self-proclaimed messiah proved too tough for their dynamite.
But the mammoth effigy of the founder of the Golden Lotus cult, which has towered over a small village in southeastern France for more than a decade, won only a day's reprieve.
Authorities insist it never had planning permission and must go.
Security forces had cleared the cult's hilltop headquarters at dawn and explosive experts laid charges to destroy the sculpture of sect founder Gilbert Bourdin, otherwise known as His Holiness Lord Hamsah Manar. However, the area's local government prefect said they had not been aware of how tough the iron reinforcements in the base of the monument were, and detonation was postponed.
"We won't be able to go ahead with the demolition of the statue today. It will be destroyed tomorrow afternoon," Bernard Lemaire told journalists.
Cult followers have compared the planned demolition of the 110-foot-high statue, erected in 1990, to the Afghan Taliban regime's destruction this year of colossal 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues.
Bourdin, who also called himself the Cosmoplanetary Messiah of Synthesis, the Great Master of the Order of the Knights of the Triumphant Vajra, the Master of the Selection of Souls and the Great Pontiff of the Cosmic Diamond Order, claimed to be immortal. He died of heart disease in 1998 at age 74.
He founded his "Aumism" movement in 1969 as a synthesis of all religions and created the "holy city of Mandarom" above the village of Castellane in France's picturesque Haute Provence, some 30 miles northwest of the Riviera resort of Cannes.
As police arrived at the compound early Wednesday to carry out the court order, one member of the cult scrambled to the top of the statue to protest against its destruction. Bringing him down "required some gymnastics and a lot of attention on our part," prefect Lemaire said. Other believers scuffled with police and shouted in protest.
Cult President Christine Amory slammed the demolition as "state terrorism"and said her members were outraged. But she added they were pacifists and would not get violent.
While the number of cult followers has dwindled to about 400, from around 1,200 at its height, the colorful holy city has become a major tourist attraction, drawing thousands of curious visitors each year. Looking a bit like a Disneyland theme park, Mandarom is littered with statues and temples.The only unauthorized building on the site is the monumental statue of Bourdin, which shows the guru resplendent in white robes and a papal-style tiara. His eyes glow in the dark and a Hindu bindi on the forehead blinks at night.
Local environmental groups complained that the effigy was an eyesore and a court ruled in June that it had to be destroyed. Explosive experts predicted the demolition would be a delicate operation because the statue is surrounded by temples which have planning permission and cannot be damaged.
Sect members had appealed to the European Court of Human Rights against the decision to destroy the statue, but local officials have not waited for a ruling from the court.
Bourdin's followers believe their founder will one day be resurrected from a local grave. Town officials covered over the burial site with a thick layer of reinforced concrete to prevent his supporters from digging up his body.