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Pope Backs Tolerance, Stresses Importance of Religion

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in France Friday on a four-day visit that will take him from the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris to the shrine in Lourdes. As Sabina Castelfranco reports for VOA from Paris, this is Benedict's first trip to France as pontiff.

To the notes of the Marseillaise, Pope Benedict was welcomed at Orly airport in Paris by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and First Lady Carla Bruni.

At the presidential Elysee Palace, Mr. Sarkozy told the pope that, for the millions of French Catholics, Benedict's visit was a truly exceptional event. He added that: "In the secular republic that is France, all welcome you with respect."

The pope explained the major reason for this visit.

The pope said he wanted to join pilgrims from around the world, who are converging on the Marian shrine of Lourdes to mark celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a 14-year-old peasant girl.

The pope also spoke of his concerns in what he called these uncertain times of tension and conflict.

Benedict said it is important to promote a unity that is able to guarantee the respect for national differences and different cultural traditions. He said one should not forget that national identity can only be achieved in openness toward other peoples and through solidarity with them.

The pope's stay in the French capital coincides with the second anniversary of his speech about Islam that offended many Muslims. Pope Benedict, at the start of a four-day visit to France, has upheld the principle of separation of church and state - but also noted what he says is the importance of religion in society.