Pope: Church-State separation vital for religious freedom
In his first public address since arriving in Paris on Friday for a four-day visit, Pope Benedict XVI said that the continued separation of Church and State was essential for religious freedom, reported dpa.
"It is fundamental... to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the State towards them," the pope said during a reception at the Elysee Palace hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife.
Speaking after a brief meeting with Sarkozy, the pope added that it was also vital "to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to, among other things, the creation of a basic ethical consensus within society."
The statement was intended to reassure the French that he had no objections to their notion of "laicity," a strict separation of religion and public affairs that is part of the national identity and has been law since 1905.
It was also a noteworthy echo of a speech Sarkozy himself made last December, when he called for a "positive laicity" and suggested that the state could ultimately grant subsidies to religious groups.
In a speech preceding the pope's address on Friday, the French president repeated his call, saying that "positive laicity offers our consciences the opportunity to discuss, by means of beliefs and rituals, the meaning we wish to give to our existence."
Describing the pope as "a man of conviction, knowledge and dialogue," Sarkozy said that "the spiritual quest is no danger to democracy."
The visit of the 81-year-old pope to France - his first since he was elected to succeed the popular John Paul II in April 2005 - comes at a time when the status of the Catholic Church is declining in France, with fewer people identifying themselves as Catholics and only a small minority regularly attending Mass.
According to a recent survey, nearly three of four French adults say that the Church has no influence on French society.
Later Friday, the pope was 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 in which 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 repeat his call for a more healthy cohabitation of secularism and faith in the world and to address the problems of "moral relativism" and "subjectivism," which turn individuals away from deep faith.
While in Paris, Pope Benedict XVI is also expected to meet with representatives from France's Muslim and Jewish communities.
On Saturday, the pope will travel to the pilgrimage site of Lourdes, in southern France, where he 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.