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Bells of French cathedrals ring in solemn tribute to Notre Dame

Paris, France As soon as clocks struck 6:50pm on Friday, more than 100 cathedrals across France rang their bells to mark the exact moment that Notre Dame, one of the country’s most iconic buildings, erupted in flames.

Heard in the Sacre Coeur of Paris and Sainte-Marie-Majeure of Marseilles, it was a solemn but defiant tribute to a loss that brought temporary unity to a country struggling to reconcile its many political and social divisions.

But the panic that sent thousands of Parisians and visitors rushing to the banks of the River Seine on Wednesday to watch the landmark burn, some bursting into tears or singing songs to keep spirits high, has gradually subsided.

Even as the fire consumed the centuries-old cathedral’s roof and spire, many were grateful that its stone structure stood firm and the loss was not much greater.

Rebuilding efforts

Authorities said the building was only minutes away from complete destruction, but the daring response of 400 firefighters made a vital difference, saving the cathedral’s famous bell towers, its ornate stained-glass rose windows and many irreplaceable artistic and religious treasures.

Since then, hundreds of millions of euros in pledges have flooded in from France’s wealthiest families and industrialists to finance the rebuilding efforts, while the government has said that returning the cathedral to its former glory will be a national priority.

However, the remarkable speed of the fundraising effort has left some questioning whether French society values stone and cement more than its vulnerable.

“Of course it’s a tragedy, it’s a wonderful cathedral and very old, but all this money that’s been given towards the rebuilding, would it not be better spent on people who are homeless?” Jacques, an enthusiastic supporter of France’s anti-establishment yellow-vest movement, asked Al Jazeera.

“I think this money might be better spent, as a Catholic, helping people who need it. If all the cathedrals burn, I’ll still be able to practise my religion.”

People gather along the banks of the River Seine on Friday [Charles Platiau/Reuters]

On the south bank of the Seine, hordes of tourists on Friday vied for space to take photos of the Gothic masterpiece, prevented by a police cordon from getting any closer. The city’s most popular destination for foreign visitors, drawing more than 12 million per year, has clearly not lost its charm.

Gazing from the Pont Saint-Michel at the cathedral’s almost untouched facade with its bell towers gleaming in the spring sunshine, Marina Ressa said she regrets missing the opportunity to visit Notre Dame before disaster struck.

“We took a hop-on, hop-off bus and so we could see it, just the day before,” said Ressa, a visitor from Ravensburg in Germany. “No we didn’t [go inside], that’s a big pity.”

“I was shocked. I couldn’t really believe that it was happening at first,” said Grace Ryan, whose hopes to visit Notre Dame were dashed as she watched the conflagration on TV shortly before flying from Chicago to Paris.

“It was crazy to see the fire falling into the building and just being worried the whole time that the whole thing was going to fall down.”

‘It was overwhelming’

Few countries in the world are more observant in their separation of church and state than France, where the concept of “laicite” – the strict French secular separation of church and state – is foundational to public life.

But Notre Dame holds an important place in the Catholic faith, to which almost a half of the French population subscribes, though many are not practising.

The devastating fire took place just days before Easter Sunday, the most holy day in the Catholic calendar.

Just a few minutes’ walk from Notre Dame, worshippers came and went from the 17th-century church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis, which, like Notre Dame, has seen its share of war and revolution.

“It was overwhelming. I saw it from my own house [and] I could see the flames and the smoke coming out,” Alain, a practising Catholic, told Al Jazeera on his way out from prayer.

“Especially during Easter, at this time of the year, for Catholics it could be a little harder and I think that it’s possible that this incident could reunite people … it could increase faith among Catholics to see such an event,” he told Al Jazeera.

Alain said he often prayed in Notre Dame, and hoped it would open to worshippers during the renovations.

“[But] for me, there are so many churches in Paris, I can go elsewhere to practise my faith, so it’s not the end of the world.”

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