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Pope Benedict XVI celebrates mass in Paris

260,000 followers are gathered for an open-air mass in Paris to be led by Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope, on his first official visit to France, will then travel to the town of Lourdes, where an equal number of devotees are awaited.

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Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday led some 260,000 followers in an open-air mass in Paris to celebrate his first official visit to France, the "eldest daughter" of the Catholic Church.

The leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics arrived at around 9:30 am (0730 GMT) on board the "popemobile" at the historic Invalides complex south of the River Seine, where some 60,000 young Catholics spent the night after a candlelit riverside procession.

Tens of thousands more travelled through the night for a chance to see and hear the 81-year-old pontiff, before he leaves Paris later Saturday on a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Lourdes.

At least 160,000, many of them families with young children, had flocked into the square by 9:00 am to watch the pope's image beamed out onto half a dozen giant screens, organisers said, adding that tens of thousands lined up along the pope's route, cheering and waving flags.

Benedict's four-day visit to France comes as the country faces a freefall in the number of churchgoers despite its deep Christian heritage.

But he received a triumphant welcome on Friday, with 40,000 people taking part in the nighttime procession from Notre Dame cathedral to the Invalides, many carrying sleeping bags and food to keep them going until the mass.

"We're a bit sleepy, but very excited to see the pope for real," said Juliette Loobuyck, 18, a scout leader from Reims, in Champagne country east of Paris, huddled with her group in a cluster of sleeping bags.

"If we want the church to stay alive, to stay standing, it's important for him to be here, and for us to be here too," she said.

"There is a real fervour," said Valerie Louisy, 52, one of 5,000 Christian volunteers at the Invalides, looking out over the sea of youngsters, families and elderly couples.

"It's good to see Christians come out of their bubble a bit, it makes us realise how many of us there are."

On Friday the pope threw his weight behind a call by President Nicolas Sarkozy to rethink the strict separation of religion and state, and recognise religion's role in building an "ethical" society.

Sarkozy, a twice-divorced lapsed Catholic, broke a French taboo during a trip to the Vatican last year by calling for a "positive secularism" that would allow space for religion in public life.

While Catholicism remains by far France's number one religion, the country is also home to Europe's biggest Muslim and Jewish communities and staunchly upholds a 1905 law enshrining the separation of Church and State.

Following a reception hosted by Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni, the pope met with leaders of France's 600,000-strong Jewish and five-million strong Muslim communities.

In a keynote speech to some 700 politicians, artists and religious leaders, the pope warned humanity faced "disaster" if it turned away from religion.

"What gave Europe's culture its foundation -- the search for God and the readiness to listen to him -- remains today the basis of any genuine culture," Pope Benedict said.

This is Benedict's first trip to France since his election in 2005 following the death of John Paul II and his 10th trip abroad after Australia in July.

Known as the Church's "eldest daughter" since Frankish king Clovis converted in the fifth century, France is home to 35 million baptised Catholics, although polls show few feel a strong sense of belonging to the Church.

Fifty-one percent say they consider themselves Catholic, down from 80 percent in the early 1990s, and only 10 percent attend mass regularly.

After Saturday's mass, the pope flies to Lourdes for commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Vatican-recognized apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a peasant girl.

More than 150,000 people are expected to descend on the southwestern town where Bernadette Soubirous is said to have seen the mother of Jesus Christ 18 times over a period of a few months in 1858.

Some 9,200 police will be mobilised to ensure security during the visit.

The pope wraps up his trip Monday with a mass for the sick in Lourdes that the Vatican has portrayed as an opportunity for Benedict to shed his reputation as a cold theologian and show his compassionate side.

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