Pope Visits Sarajevo ‘To Encourage Peaceful Coexistence’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Pope Francis arrives in Sarajevo on Saturday morning, June 6, as “a messenger of peace.” In a video-message on the eve of his 11-hour visit he extended greetings to “all” the inhabitants of the city and of Bosnia-Herzegovina and said he is coming “to confirm the faith of Catholics, to support ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and especially to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country.”

From the beginning of his pontificate the Argentine pope has given particular attention to “the peripheries” of the world. Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its capital city Sarajevo, is one of those peripheries. Life is hard there. The economy is weak, unemployment is high and tensions are never far from the surface in this country of around 3.8 million people, sandwiched between Serbia and Croatia, 40 percent of whom are Muslim (Bosniaks), 31 percent Orthodox Christian (Serbs) and 15 percent Catholic (mostly Croats).

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Francis is keenly aware of the threat to peace and social harmony because of the unstable situation and the fact that reconciliation has never really been achieved in any substantial way since the end of the war between the members of the different ethnic-religious communities in this land. Nor has reconciliation been realized in this historic city of Sarajevo that was once known as ‘The Jerusalem of Europe’ because Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together here in peace for many centuries. But Sarajevo is also the city where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on June 28, 1914, an act that triggered the First World War.

“Mir Vama” (“Peace be with you”) is the motto of Francis’ visit. He is coming on a mission of peace to encourage harmonious relations among all the inhabitants of this city and of this country as they struggle to recover from the devastating three and a half year war (1992-95) that was fought over whether the country should remain in the Yugoslav Federation or become an independent state. That conflict, inflamed by nationalist politics that exploited ethnic and religious bonds, caused the deaths of 100,000 people and spawned ethnic cleansing which forced two million people to leave their homes, many of whom have never returned.

The Dayton Peace Accord, at the end of 1995, brought an end to the war and led to the recognition of the independent state of Bosnia-Herzegovina under international administration, composed of two separate entities: the Bosnian Serb Republic ( Republika Srpska , with 49 percent of the territory) and the Bosnian-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (with 51 percent of the territory). Each entity has its own president, government, parliament, police and other bodies. The independent state, on the other hand, has a collegial presidency of three members – Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croat and Serb, elected by their own communities for a period of 4 years. The presidency is rotated among them every eight months. There is also a national parliament, to which 28 deputies are elected every two years, 14 from each of the two separate entities.

This complex political solution to the war has contributed to dysfunctional government over the past twenty years. Critics claim the solution reinforced nationalism and separatism at the expense of integration and reconciliation, and effectively entrenched the results of ethnic cleansing. The European Court of Human Rights has judged that the constitution is discriminatory, but its verdict changed nothing. Thus, with an economy further weakened by the recent international crisis and with widespread corruption, tensions continue to simmer below the surface. They exploded in 2013 over the census (requested by the European Union), and then erupted into violence against the political class in early 2014. The last national elections (12 October 2014) left that situation substantially unchanged with the victory of candidates from the three nationalist-ethnic parties. The possibility of entry to the European Union is a hope on the horizon, and another significant step in that direction was taken on June 1 when the Stabilization and Association Agreement – a necessary stage on that journey came into force. But for the majority of ordinary people struggling every day to survive with dignity life is often extremely difficult and change is arriving at the pace of the snail. Not surprisingly, therefore, hope is in short supply.

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are in dire need of hope and encouragement, and that is what Pope Francis embodies. He was invited by the Republic’s three presidents and by its Catholic bishops, and his visit is being warmly welcomed on all sides, and nowhere is that enthusiasm more tangible than in Sarajevo.

A symbol of this enthusiasm is the fact that Muslim carpenters have carved the chair on which the Pope will sit during mass, while Catholic craftsmen have built the altar. Another encouraging sign is that, on the eve of his visit, a mixed choir of Muslim and Christian children were practicing the song they will sing during his mass in the stadium. Significantly, however, they were practicing it not in Sarajevo, but in the city of Srebrenica – site of the worst massacre of the war.

Asked to explain the great enthusiasm for his visit, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, archbishop of Vrhbosna,Sarajevo, for the past 25 years, explained it this way to Italy’s Adnkronos news agency: “Sarajevo was forgotten by everyone, at all levels, but the Pope’s announcement (that he would visit) was enough to trigger a great mobilization.” In other words, despite the international oversight of the political situation and the money spent on it, Sarajevo and Bosnia –Herzegovina was no longer attracting the attention of the international community, but the Pope’s visit is changing that. And he is arriving with 64 members of the international media, including America’s correspondent.

Catholics, of course, are overjoyed at his coming the cardinal said, “because for too long they have lacked hope in carrying the Cross,” but now Francis will bring “consolation “and give “an infusion of courage.” Before the war there were over 800,000 Catholics in the country, but some 300,000 have since left. The Jesuit pope will seek to encourage all of them when he celebrates the Eucharist, attended by 60,000 of them, in the Kosevo stadium. Here in 1997, shivering under falling snow and bitterly cold winds, John Paul II appealed to people of this land to be reconciled with one another, saying “to ask pardon is something worthy of man.” The first Latin American pope is sure to encourage the people to take that same path; there is no other. Already in his video message, he appealed to Catholics “to be witnesses to their fellow citizens of the faith and love of God, working for a society that makes ways towards peace in brotherhood and in mutual cooperation.” 

After mass, he will have lunch with the country’s bishops, and later in the afternoon he will travel to the city’s cathedral to pray with and encourage the some 300 priests, men and women religious and seminarians gathered there.

Soon after his early morning arrival Francis will meet the Presidency of the Republic and the civic authorities, but the most important event of the whole day comes in the late afternoon when he greets 300 representatives of the Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish communities of Bosnia Herzegovina at the Franciscan International Student Center. There he will deliver the keynote speech of his visit. He knows that there is a great desire for reconciliation in the country, but nationalist tensions work against its realization. Francis is expected to strongly encourage these children of Abraham - Muslim, Christians and Jews - to be reconciled with each other across ethnic boundaries, and to work for peace and reconciliation in their homeland and a better future for their children.

After that crucial meeting, the Jesuit pope will drive to the John Paul II diocesan youth center to meet 800 young people, for the last event of his action-packed day. Built after the war, the center is open to young people irrespective of religion. Francis knows that many young people have left the country in recent years despairing of a better future. He is likely to offer them words of hope and encouragement, before taking the plane back to Rome.

This is Pope Francis’ eight foreign journey since becoming pope, and his second to the Balkans. He visited Albania in September of last year.

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