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Pope urges Czechs to renew faith

| Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI called on Europeans to "usher in a new beginning" in the "struggle for freedom and the search for truth" as he helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of Communism during a three-day visit to the Czech Republic.

"Freedom seeks purpose; it requires conviction," the pontiff said in an address Saturday at Prague's Hradcany Castle. The end of totalitarian regimes in central and eastern Europe in 1989 had ushered in a "renewal of hope. Is it not precisely that spirit that contemporary Europe needs?"

The Catholic leader, who speaks out often about the risk of secular Europe losing its Christian roots, is marking the first visit by a pontiff to the Czech nation since 1997. The central European nation, a former Warsaw Pact member with a centuries-long history of religious and ideological conflict, is one of the few European countries yet to ratify a treaty on relations with the Vatican.

A generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, "the process of healing and rebuilding continues, now within the wider context of European unification and an increasingly globalized world," he said, urging European leaders to "meet the aspirations of the young" by promoting values within their nations.

During a midday arrival ceremony at Prague's airport, the German-born pontiff spoke briefly in Czech before switching to English and characterized the Czech Republic's location in Europe as a "battleground and sometimes as a bridge."

Benedict, 82, paid tribute to members of the Catholic church and others who had fought against the Soviet-led regime that took power in 1948, saying "the loss of 40 years of political openness cannot be underestimated."

Benedict's trip comes as religious practice is at a historic low in the country, and as the government and the Catholic church have yet to resolve a dispute over the restitution of property confiscated by the former communist authorities.

Atheist groups have called the visit a violation of the secular constitution, while critics of the Vatican's ban on artificial means of birth control plan to hand out 10,000 condoms during a papal Mass in Brno tomorrow, the CTK news service said Sept. 24.

The pope will focus his trip on the country's dwindling Catholic population, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. He "will encourage the local church to bring hope and vitality to a very secularized environment," Lombardi said.

"The Czech Republic is geographically and historically in the heart of Europe, and after having endured the dramatic events of the previous century, it needs, as does the entire continent, to rediscover the reasons for faith and hope," Benedict said in Castelgandolfo, south of Rome, site of the papal retreat.

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