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Page last updated at 11:05 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 12:05 UK

Pope begins first visit to France

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The Pope is welcomed by President Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni

The Pope has arrived in France for his first visit there since he took office.

He was met at Paris's Orly airport by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni.

During his four days in the country, the Pope will celebrate an open-air Mass in Paris and travel to the shrine of Lourdes.

In a country that has strict laws on secularism, Pope Benedict XVI is also due to give a speech about the role of religion in society.

"I love France, France's great culture, French art," he told reporters while on his way to Paris.

He said he was coming to France as a "messenger of peace and brotherhood".

The Pope meets President Sarkozy
The Pope is to meet cultural and religious leaders

The Pope's busy schedule begins with a service at Notre Dame Cathedral on Friday. He will then hold meetings with representatives of France's Jewish community and deliver a speech to cultural figures and Muslim leaders.

While Catholicism remains by far France's main religion, the nation is also home to Europe's biggest Muslim and Jewish communities.

And France staunchly upholds a 1905 law that enshrines the separation of Church and state.

But President Sarkozy has supported efforts to ease France's strict secularism law.

The BBC's Frances Kennedy, in Rome, says church attendance and vocations to the priesthood are falling in France.

However, a French newspaper poll on Thursday showed that more than half of those questioned had a positive view of the Pope.

On Saturday, the pontiff will travel to the pilgrim centre of Lourdes which attracts millions of visitors each year.

The Pope's visit coincides with the second anniversary of his speech about Islam that offended many Muslims.

In the 2006 Regensburg lecture to theologians in Germany, he quoted a text from a 14th Century Byzantine emperor which linked Islam to violence.

The Pope apologised for any offence he caused and the rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, has said he considers the matter closed.


SEE ALSO
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20 Jul 08 |  Asia-Pacific
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