(UNESCO headquarters in Paris)

(UNESCO headquarters in Paris, 7 Sept 2005/Matthias Ripp)

The Vatican has launched a series of public dialogues with non-believers, 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 the opening session on Thursday at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that 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.