French President and his wife welcome Pope Benedict to Paris

Other News Materials 12 September 2008 14:59 (UTC +04:00)

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Paris Friday for a four-day visit, his first trip to France since he was elected to succeed the popular John Paul II in April 2005, reported dpa.

The 81-year-old pope was greeted at Paris's Orly Airport by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who will host a reception for him at the Elysee Palace later in the day.

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to spend two days in Paris before travelling to the pilgrimage site of Lourdes, in southern France.

Later Friday, the pope is scheduled to deliver an address to 700 intellectuals, artists ands scientists at the College des Bernardins in Paris.

The address is eagerly anticipated as it comes on the second anniversary of his controversial speech at Regensburg where he quoted a 14-century Byzantine emperor as saying, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Friday's speech is not expected to make waves. It will probably call for a cohabitation of secularism and faith in the world, and in particular in a country such as France, where the separation between Church and State is part of the national identity and has been law since 1905.

In this argument, Benedict XVI will have an ally in Sarkozy, who has called for for what he described as "a positive laicity" in which religion is not pushed to the margins of society but is part of its moral support.

"In the transmission of values and the learning of the difference between good and evil, the teacher can never replace the pastor," Sarkozy said in a speech earlier this year.

The pope's visit to France comes at a time where the status of the Catholic Church is declining, with fewer people identifying themselves as Catholics.

According to a recent survey, nearly three of four French adults say that the Church has no influence on French society.

Pope Benedict XVI is also expected to meet with representatives from France's Muslim and Jewish communities, the largest in Europe, while in Paris.

Some 9,200 security officers will be deployed to protect the pope during his visit, with 5,400 to be used for Saturday's open-air mass in the capital, at which 200,000 people are expected to take part.

Another 3,800 police officers, gendarmes and other agents are to be deployed at Lourdes, where Pope Benedict XVI is to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to a 14-year- old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858.