French demolish guru statue 6, 2001

Castellane, France -- Demolition workers have smashed the giant concrete statue of a cult leader built illegally in southern France.

A controlled explosion toppled the 110-foot homage to Gilbert Bourdin, late founder of the Golden Lotus cult, and send it sliding a few feet down a hill outside the village of Castellane in southeastern France.

Workers used heavy-duty jackhammers to hack away at the structure to weaken it after an attempt to demolish it on Wednesday was abandoned when workers saw its base was reinforced with iron.

French authorities said the monument to Bourdin, the focal point of the sect's "holy city of Mandarom" just outside Castellane, was built in 1990 without permission.

Cult followers compared the demolition of the statue, which shows the guru resplendent in white robes and a papal-style tiara, to the recent destruction in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime of colossal 1,500-year-old Buddhist statues.

A small group watched from behind a security cordon with tears in their eyes as the statue wobbled under the loud explosion and then slowly fell backward down the hill.

"For me, it is the same type of crime as that committed by the Taliban," cult spokeswoman Christine Amory told Reuters news agency.

"But the sect is not going to die because of this," she said. The cult's followers have dwindled in number to about 400 from about 1,200 at its height.

Many local residents were delighted though. "This has been disfiguring the landscape since 1990," said Robert Ferrato, leader of a local action group seeking to have the statue felled.

"It's a victory for law over the world of sects," he said, opening a bottle of sparkling wine.

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 aged 74.

He founded his "Aumism" movement in 1969 as a synthesis of all religions and created Mandarom, which is about 30 miles northwest of the Riveria resort of Cannes.

While the number of cult followers has dwindled, the colourful holy city -- littered with statues and temples -- draws thousands of curious visitors each year. The only unauthorised building on the site was the statue of Bourdin.

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.

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