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Young give Pope a pop star's welcome to Paris

The Pope won a pop star's welcome from 500,000 young people at a world youth festival in Paris yesterday as a new opinion poll showed most French youths felt religion was irrelevant.

He beamed as a huge crowd by the Eiffel Tower cheered, stamped and waved flags at almost every word he said. The Pope asked: "Why did [engineer Gustave] Eiffel build this tower? To have a great meeting here of world youth." Calling the festival a "vast gathering of hope", the Pope earlier told French President Jacques Chirac the young faced a difficult search for physical and spiritual well-being in a world scarred by violence, unemployment and poverty.

"Wherever people are suffering, wherever they are humiliated by poverty or injustice and wherever a mockery is made of their rights, make it your task to serve them," the Pope said.

French political leaders have shied away from such meetings in the past, because of the Vatican's opposition to French legislation on abortion and the strong secular traditions of the French Republic. The Interior Minister Jean Pierre Chevenement has argued that neither the meeting nor the event itself threatened this principle of secularity and sees the festival as "a great event for France, rather like the World Cup" that will take place in France next year.

The organisation of the festival has been marred by worries over the demise of Catholicism in France. Less than a third of the festival crowd were native French.Many young people are going less frequently to mass and are ignoring Catholic dogma. This is in large part due to the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception and abortion. Bertrand Robert, 20, a history student in Paris described the Catholic teachings as "authoritarian, inflexible and out-dated".