- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

VATICAN CITY (Agence France-Presse) — Religious symbols should be allowed in public places, Pope Benedict XVI told a group of Italian Catholic legal specialists yesterday.

“Hostility to all forms of recognition of the political and cultural importance of religion and in particular the presence of any religious symbols in public institutions … is not a sign of healthy secularism, but the degeneration of secularism,” the pope said.

“The state cannot consider religion to be simply an individual feeling that can be confined to the private sphere,” said the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

Religion “should be recognized as a common public presence,” and its symbols should be allowed in offices, schools, courtrooms, hospitals, prisons and so on, the 79-year-old pontiff added.

“An areligious vision of life, thought and ethics” has led to an erroneous conception of secularism, “a term that seems to have become the essential emblem … of modern democracy,” he said.

The question of religious symbols in public has inflamed passions throughout the Western world in recent years, from high profile court battles in the United States over Christmas displays to Islamist demands throughout the Middle East that women in public be covered from head to toe.

“It is out of the question for the Church to indicate what political or social order is preferable, but the people should freely choose the best and most appropriate ways to organize public life,” Benedict said.

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