* Two days of meetings in Paris
* Vatican aims to bring faith back into public debates
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor
PARIS, March 24 (Reuters) - The Vatican launched a series of
public dialogues with non-believers on Thursday, choosing
leading intellectual institutions in Paris to present its belief
that modern societies must speak more openly about God.
The decision to start the series in France, where strong
secularism has pushed faith to the fringes of the public sphere,
reflected Pope Benedict's goal of bringing religious questions
back into the mainstream of civic debates.
The dialogues, called "Courtyard of the Gentiles" after the
part of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem where Jews and non-Jews
met, will continue in at least 16 cities in Europe and North
America over the next two years.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister,
told participants at the United Nations Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) the dialogue was meant not to
confront believers and atheists but to seek common ground.
Rather it was "an invitation to non-believers ... to start a
voyage with believers through the desert," he said.
The meeting was due to continue on Friday with sessions at
the Sorbonne university and the Institut de France, home of the
prestigious Academie Francaise.
Pope Benedict, who recently launched another Vatican drive
to revitalise the faith in traditionally Catholic countries,
proposed these meetings with non-believers in 2009.
"We must be concerned that human beings do not set aside the
question of God, but rather see it as an essential question for
their lives," he said in a speech to the Vatican hierarchy.
"We must make sure that they are open to this question and
to the yearning concealed within it."
Addressing the UNESCO meeting, former Italian Prime Minister
Giuliano Amato said a so-called honour killing in his country,
in which a Pakistani murdered his daughter for behaving as
freely as Italian youths, presented a challenge to open
democracies that believers and atheists had to think about.
"Democratic societies are founded on the hypothesis that
everyone can differentiate between just and unjust, good and
evil, and everyone can find the limits" he said. "If one is no
longer conscious of this, then democracy doesn't work anymore."
Although he said Christianity offered a moral compass, Amato
did not present it as the only way to counter the problems
challenging affluent liberal societies.
Even Ravasi, despite his Roman collar, did not present his
views as a sermon for more Catholicism. Instead of the Gospels,
he quoted secular thinkers such as the German poet Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig
Wittgenstein and the Argentinian novelist Jorge Luis Borges.
The discussions are due to end on Friday evening with a
youth rally outside Notre Dame Cathedral highlighted by a video
address by the pope from Rome.
Further dialogue meetings are planned in Italy, Albania,
Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Spain,
Russia and the United States.
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