PRAGUE – Pope Benedict XVI sought to reach out to the heavily secular people of the Czech Republic on Saturday, decrying the "wounds" left by atheistic communism and urging them to rediscover their Christian roots.

As he began a three-day pilgrimage coinciding with the fall of communism in this central European country 20 years ago, Benedict said Christianity has an "irreplaceable role" to play in their lives.

The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with nearly half the country professing to be non-believers.

The atmosphere surrounding the visit appeared to reflect that.

Few people turned out for the formal welcoming ceremony at Prague's Ruzyne International Airport, there were no crowds or welcoming billboards on the streets and the city's newspapers barely mentioned the visit. Local TV stations, however, broadcast the ceremony live.

Vatican organizers are hoping for a crowd of up to 200,000 people for the pope's Sunday Mass in Brno, in the Catholic heartland of the Czech Republic.

Upon arriving, the 82-year-old pope spoke of how the communist regime, which was overthrown in 1989, ruthlessly persecuted the Roman Catholic Church.

"I join you and your neighbors in giving thanks for your liberation from these oppressive regimes," Benedict said, hailing the collapse of the Berlin Wall two decades ago this autumn as "a watershed in world history."

"Nevertheless, the cost of 40 years of political repression is not to be underestimated," the pope said. "A particular tragedy for this land was the ruthless attempt by the government of that time to silence the voice of the church."

"Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture," he said.

He kept up on that theme as the day went by, telling Czech officials and diplomats gathered in medieval Hradcany Castle of the "irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the conscience of each generation."

Later, at an evening prayer service, Benedict said the "long winter of communist dictatorship" has left its scars.

"Society continues to suffer from the wounds caused by atheist ideology, and is often seduced by the modern mentality of hedonistic consumerism," he said.

The service was held in St. Vitus Cathedral, the Gothic centerpiece of the castle complex that has come to symbolize the Catholic church's dilemma. Although religious freedom was restored when communism fell, the church is still battling for the return of the cathedral and other property given to the state by the communist regime.

"We are convinced that you are coming to visit your brothers and sisters in distress, for neither are we a great country, nor a numerous and great church community," Cardinal Miloslav Vik said in welcoming Benedict to the cathedral.

The German-born pope, who gave his speeches in either English or Italian, was making his first foreign trip since he broke his right wrist in a fall while on vacation in July. He told reporters aboard his plane that he is finally able to write again and hopes to complete a new book by next spring.

Scores of pilgrims poured into Prague for the nation's first papal visit in a dozen years. But most Czechs seemed to shrug the trip off as irrelevant — and some were openly hostile.

"It's just a waste of money," said Kveta Tomasovicova, 56, who works at Prague's National Library. "At a time of economic crisis, when our salaries are going down, the visit is a useless investment."

Under communism, which ended with the 1989 Velvet Revolution that drew hundreds of thousands of Czechs to mostly nonviolent street protests, the church was brutally repressed.

The regime, which seized power in 1948 in what was then Czechoslovakia, confiscated all church-owned property and persecuted many priests. Churches were then allowed to function only under the state's control and supervision.

The bitter restitution battle has left a sour taste in the mouths of many Czechs. And some — claiming the church cares more about property than souls — have drifted away from the faith.

In 1991, 4.5 million of the country's 10 million people said they belonged to a church. In 2001, a census showed that number had plunged to 3.3 million.

Recent surveys suggest the freewheeling drop continues. About one in two respondents to a poll conducted by the agency STEM said they don't believe in God. Another 28 percent said they considered themselves believers, and 24 percent were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Underscoring the hostility toward the church, a group calling itself Condom Positive planned to distribute condoms bearing a likeness of the pope wearing one on his head and the words: "Papa said no! And you?"

Another group, Condoms for the Pope, said it would inflate prophylactics to condemn Benedict's assertion earlier this year that condoms are not the answer to Africa's severe AIDS problem.

At a stop Saturday at Prague's Church of Our Lady of Victory, home to a revered statuette of the infant Jesus, the pope condemned violence and neglect against children.

"May children always be accorded the respect and attention that are due to them: They are the future and the hope of humanity!" he said.

The pope met with President Vaclav Klaus and other current and former leaders, including Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-president who led the 1989 anti-communist uprising.

After Sunday's Mass in Brno, the pope returns to Prague to meet with local leaders of other religious faiths and with scholars at Prague's castle.

On Monday, Benedict visits the basilica of St. Wenceslas — the nation's patron saint — in the town of Stara Boleslav, a popular pilgrimage site just northeast of the capital. He then lunches with Czech bishops in Prague before returning to Rome.

(Source: Associated Press Writers William J. Kole and Karel Janicek contributed to this report.)