PARIS – Pope Benedict XVI called for a greater sense of brotherhood in the world as the Vatican’s forum for dialogue between Christians and atheists was inaugurated in Paris.

“Religions cannot be afraid of a just secularism, a secularism that is open and allows individuals to live according to what they believe in their own consciences,” he said.

“If we are to build a world of freedom, equality and fraternity, believers and non-believers should feel themselves to be free, with equal rights to live their individual and community lives in accordance with their own convictions; and they must be brothers to one another.”

The Vatican’s first-ever “Courtyard of the Gentiles” event was held from March 24-25. The Pontifical Council for Culture, led by its president, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, organised the two-day discussion between Christians and atheists or non-believers at historically important cultural sites in the French capital.

The Courtyard was formed by the Vatican’s culture department after the pope hoped for such a forum to foster dialogue on religion in 2009.

Catholics and atheists examined themes of enlightenment, religion and shared reason during gatherings at the offices of the UNESCO, the Sorbonne University and the French Academy.

The evening of the second day was capped off with a large gathering at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The Taize community held a prayer service inside the church as people gathered for music and mixed in the square outside. A light show beamed onto the cathedral facade was part of the festivities.

In a pre-recorded message addressed to youth in the square, Pope Benedict XVI said that the “question of God” must not be absent from contemporary discussion. He called all young people to “rediscover the path of dialogue” in Europe.

Dialogue, he said, will help people overcome fears of the unknown.

He told the youth not to be afraid. “On your journey together towards a new world, seek the absolute, seek God, even those of you for whom he is an unknown God.”

Similar sessions are being planned for other cities around the world, including in Quebec in 2012 and in Chicago and Washington in 2013.

- CNA, CNS

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