PARIS The Vatican launched a series of public dialogues with non-believers 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 Organization (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 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 honor 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 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.