VATICAN CITY, JAN. 12, 2004 ( John Paul II warns that a confusion between secularism and laicism is spreading in Europe and could become a threat to freedom of religion.

The Pope's concern, which he expressed last year in the context of the redaction of the draft of the European Union's Constitutional Treaty, was one of the key points of his address today to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.

"We are witnesses, in recent times, in certain countries of Europe, of an attitude that might endanger effective respect for freedom of religion," the Holy Father said in his new year's address to the ambassadors.

"Although everyone is in agreement in respecting the religious sentiment of individuals, the same cannot be said of the 'religious event,' namely, the social dimension of religions," he said.

"The principle of secularism is frequently invoked -- legitimate in itself, if understood as the distinction between the political community and religions," the Pope said in French. "But distinction does not mean ignorance! Secularism is not laicism!"

"It is nothing other than respect of all beliefs on the part of the state, which ensures the free exercise of worship, and of spiritual, cultural and charitable activities of the communities of believers," he explained.

"In a pluralist society, secularism is the place of communication between the diverse spiritual traditions and the nation," the Holy Father continued. "Church-state relations can and must make room for respectful dialogue, which transmits fruitful experiences and values for the future of a nation."

"A healthy dialogue between the state and the churches … can undoubtedly favor the total development of the person and the harmony of society," he added.

This debate, he said, "was verified in an emblematic way on the occasion of the recent debate on the Christian roots of Europe."

"Some have done a re-reading of history through the prism of reductive ideologies, forgetting what Christianity has contributed to culture and to the continent's institutions: the dignity of the human person, freedom, a sense of the universal, the school and university, the works of solidarity," John Paul II said.

"Without underestimating the other religious traditions, it is a fact that Europe was established art the same time as it was evangelized," the Pope observed.

Addressing the European question, the Holy Father said that "it is a duty of justice to recall that until recently Christians, in promoting the freedom and rights of man, have contributed to the peaceful transformation of authoritarian regimes, as well as to the restoration of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe."