A 7-foot Jesus statue in Tuan Pham's back yard and at the heart of a zoning dispute was damaged by fire Sunday morning.

Pham and his wife, Mai, awoke for an early church service to see a blaze enveloping the marble statue Pham had imported and erected in his prayer garden beside the Mississippi River bluff. A pile of nail-studded wood had been stacked around the statue's base and lit on fire.

Pham, 75, put on a coat, ran outside and tried to move the burning 2-by-4s away from his beloved statue. A daughter called police, comforted her mother and began snapping photos.

The incident has left the family distraught but more determined to keep the statue in its current spot -- one that the St. Paul City Council says is closer to the edge of the bluff than city rules permit.

"God never gave up," Pham said. "So I follow him."

"It's a sign," said Pham's daughter, Sylvie Phan. "God wants his name to be known."

After an anonymous complaint to the city last November, a zoning board rejected Pham's request for a variance that would have allowed the statue to stay put. The City Council upheld that denial last week, saying that the statue is subject to the 40-foot setback from the bluff.

The statue is a replica of the 105-foot Christ of Vung Tao statue in Pham's native Vietnam. Pham said Sunday that the fire makes him feel like he's in "Libya, or Vietnam -- not America."

A St. Paul Fire Department spokesman said that the family called at 6:04 a.m., firefighters arrived soon after to put out the fire and an investigator was at the house Sunday afternoon.

By then, the family had put "Don't touch!" signs beside the charred wood and an aerosol can, to protect the evidence. The statue's body survived unharmed, but the base was discolored and covered in gray soot. Pham said he was unsure whether he will be able to scrub it back to its ivory hue.

The family said this was not the first time someone had tried to injure Jesus. About a year ago, someone shot the statue in the shoulder with a paintball gun.

"This is his back yard, his retirement, the fruit of this labor," Sylvie Pham said of her father, shaking her head.

"It's very upsetting," said Dao Phan, Sylvie's husband. "This is certainly not the part of the American dream he was looking for."

Staff writer Rochelle Olson contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168