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Pope Benedict Defends Legitimate Role of Religion in Society

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Pope Benedict XVI voiced his concern Friday at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, in a major address in Westminister Hall, attended by British politicians, businessmen and cultural leaders. He spoke on the same day British police arrested five men believed to be planning an attack.

Pope Benedict on Friday defended what he called the legitimate role of religion in the public square. He was addressing an 1,800-strong audience in Westminister Hall. It was the first time a pontiff has come to speak in this venue, where in 1535 the Catholic martyr Saint Thomas More was tried for treason and condemned to death.

Among those present were politicians, businessmen, cultural leaders and four former British prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In his address, the pope praised Britain as a pluralist society, which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and the respect for the rule of law. But he expressed concern at the increasing marginalization of society even in nations, which place a great emphasis on tolerance.

"There are those that advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere," Pope Benedict said. "There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged."

There are also those who argue, the pope added, that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience.

"These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square."

Pope Benedict urged those present, within their respective spheres of influence, to promote and encourage dialogue between faith and reason.

Earlier the pope met with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the head of the Anglican Communion, at Lambeth Palace. The meeting came amid new tensions following Benedict's unprecedented decision last year to make it easier for Anglicans opposed to the ordination of women bishops to convert to Catholicism.

Benedict said he had no intention of speaking of existing difficulties. Instead, he focused on the need for Christians to work together.

Early Friday morning, British police raided a cleaning depot in central London and arrested five people, believed to be of Algerian origin. They were arrested under the Terrorism Act after police received information about a possible security threat, possibly related to the pope.

The Vatican said the pope was informed of the arrests and was calm. Officials said security measures for his trip were reviewed and were deemed to be appropriate. No changes were made to his schedule.

The pope's security on this trip has been visibly higher than on previous foreign trips, and Vatican officials have acknowledged that Britain represents a higher security threat than the other European countries Benedict has visited this year.

On Friday evening, the pope was to celebrate evening prayers at Westminster Abbey.

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