Pope urges Bosnians to work for peace, reconciliation
Pope Francis urged Bosnia’s Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics on Saturday to put the “barbarity” of war behind them and work together for a peaceful future as he made a one-day visit to Sarajevo to encourage 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 intoned in his homily, denouncing those who incite war to sell weapons or to deliberately foment tensions among peoples of different cultures. He 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 sun shining on Saturday’s Mass 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 interfaith and interethnic 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 confessions greeted Francis at the airport, Muslim carpenters 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 Feb. 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 airstrikes 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 has tags 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 Serb 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 percent.
“We are sorry to say, each day there are fewer of us,” Cardinal Vinko Puljic told Francis at the end of Mass.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives to celebrate a Mass at the Kosevo stadium, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday, June 6.