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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 October, 2004, 02:19 GMT 03:19 UK
Pontiff urges 'display of faith'
By David Willey
BBC, Loreto

Pope John Paul II waves as he arrives to celebrate an open-air mass in Loreto, Italy. Archive picture
The ailing Pope was wheeled to the altar to begin the service
Pope John Paul II has invited believers to display signs and symbols of their faith with pride.

In a letter to the world's Catholics the pontiff said they should not be afraid to talk of God.

He rejected claims that such practices can infringe the autonomy of civil institutions and encourage intolerance.

The Pope's remarks will be interpreted as support for the display of Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps or large Christian crucifixes in French schools.

However, John Paul II did not directly refer to recent controversies on the headscarf wearing by Muslim girls in French schools or crucifix displaying in Italy.

'Forceful opinions'

A recently passed French law bans the display of what is called "conspicuous religious symbols" in state schools.

Headscarf protest in France. Archive picture
A school ban on headscarves is causing controversy in France

Some French schools are also using the new law to turn away chaplains and priests who come to teach religious education wearing their black cassocks.

In Italy, veiled nuns and Muslim women wearing a veil have been refused identity cards on the grounds that their photographs don't show their faces clearly.

In his letter, the Pope spelled out the conditions under which Catholics may receive the Eucharist.

There is also controversy within the church over the Pope's refusal to allow divorced Catholics to receive communion and over politicians who defend positions on such matters as gay marriages and abortion which run counter to Catholic teaching.

The Pope's forceful opinions on controversial subjects are still being issued regularly from the Vatican despite the pontiff's increasing age and frailty.

Later this month the 84-year-old Pope will be entering the 27th year of his papacy, one of the longest in history.

The Pope's aid said he will continue to be wheeled on his portable throne to take part in public religious celebrations.

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