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Pope urges reconciliation in Bosnia

Published 06/06/2015

Pope Frances talks to the media on board of an airplane on his way to Sarajevo, Bosnia, for a one-day visit (AP)
Pope Frances talks to the media on board of an airplane on his way to Sarajevo, Bosnia, for a one-day visit (AP)
People gather at the Kosevo Stadium to attend a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Sarajevo (AP)

The Pope has urged Bosnia's Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics to put the "barbarity" of war behind them and work together for a peaceful future as he made a one-day visit to Sarajevo.

As he began his visit, aimed at encouraging reconciliation following the devastating three-way war of the 1990s, Francis received a joyous welcome from thousands of cheering Bosnians who lined his motorcade route through the mostly Muslim city of 300,000.

Another 65,000 people, most of them Catholics, packed the same Sarajevo stadium where St John Paul II presided over an emotional post-war Mass of reconciliation in 1997.

"War - never again," Francis said in his homily, denouncing those who incite war to sell weapons or to deliberately foment tensions among peoples of different cultures.

H e called on Bosnians to make peace every day - not just preach it - through their "actions, attitudes and acts of kindness, of fraternity, of dialogue, of mercy".

The brilliant sunshine contrasted sharply with the unseasonable April snowstorm that pelted John Paul during his historic 1997 Mass, which marked the first time many Croats had returned to Sarajevo since the war.

Nearly every step of Francis' day was designed to show off inter-faith and inter-ethnic harmony in a city once known as "Europe's Jerusalem" for the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The city, though, became synonymous with religious enmity during the 1992-95 conflict that left 100,000 dead and displaced half the population.

Children dressed in traditional folk outfits representing Bosnia's three main religious groups greeted Francis at the airport. Muslim carpenters had crafted the wooden throne he sat on during Mass and a Catholic pigeon breeder provided the white pigeons that Bosnia's three presidents and Francis set free in a sign of peace at the end of their meeting.

Reminders of the devastation of war and lingering tensions were close at hand. Francis' motorcade passed by the open market where a mortar shell fired from the surrounding hills on February 5 1994 killed 68 people in one of the bloodiest single attacks of the war.

After another shell landed on the market in 1995, Nato launched air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions that brought the Serbs to the negotiating table, resulting in the Dayton peace accords.

The area is still a market, but a wall painted red is tagged with the names of the victims.

"We all need peace and to receive the pope's message," said Alma Mehmedic, a 55-year-old Muslim who waited for a glimpse of Francis outside the presidential palace. "I came today to give love and receive love."

Despite the outward show of harmony, wounds still fester two decades later. Bosnia's Christian Orthodox Serbs want a breakaway state; Muslim Bosniaks want a unified country; and Roman Catholic Croats want their own autonomous region.

Many Catholics with Croatian passports have simply left to find better fortunes in the European Union, escaping an unemployment rate of 43%.

"We are sorry to say, each day there are fewer of us," Cardinal Vinko Puljic told Francis at the end of Mass.

In a speech to Bosnia's three-member presidency, Francis called for Bosnians to oppose the "barbarity" of those who want to continue sowing division "as a pretext for further unspeakable violence".

Rather, he urged Bosnians to continue working for respectful coexistence through patient, trustful dialogue.

"This will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred," he said.

The Serb chairman of Bosnia's three-member presidency, Mladen Ivanic, welcomed the pontiff by saying Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country of contrasts where "every word echoes much stronger and longer than elsewhere".

He added: "We believe that the times of misunderstandings, intolerance and division are behind us forever, that we have learned our lessons from the past and that new times are ahead of us, times of reason, reconciliation and cooperation."

Security was tight as thousands of police officers stood guard along Francis' motorcade route through the city, which was expecting an influx of an extra 100,000 people.

Shops and cafes were closed and residents along the route were told not to open their windows or stand on balconies. But they lined the route in droves as Francis' open-sided car ambled by.

"The pope cannot create jobs for us or improve the political situation in our country, but he can give us hope and strengthen our faith," said Stipe Turalija, a 15-year-old Bosnian Croat.

The 78-year-old Jesuit had a packed schedule, including meetings with government officials, an encounter with priests and nuns from the region, an inter-faith gathering and finally a rally with young people.

Francis has said he wants to encourage reconciliation in Bosnia, but also to encourage the Catholic Croat community, which represents only about 15% of the population - down from more than 17% before the war. Muslim Bosniaks account for 40% and Orthodox Christian Serbs 31%, according to Vatican statistics.

John Paul II had tried to visit Sarajevo during the war, but the trip was called off for security reasons.

His willingness to even consider a trip endeared him to a city that felt abandoned and betrayed by the world - sentiments of affection that have been projected onto his successor two decades later.

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