Pope Francis on Saturday bemoaned the “atmosphere of war” haunting the world as he urged the people of war-scarred Sarajevo to provide an example of how different cultures and religions can co-exist peacefully.
The 78-year-old was given a rapturous reception by a 65,000-strong crowd at the city’s Olympic stadium and tens of thousands more took to the streets to greet him.
Many conflicts across the planet amount to “a kind of third world war being fought piecemeal and, in the context of global communications, we sense an atmosphere of war,” the pontiff said in a mass at the stadium during a one-day visit to the Bosnian capital.
“Some wish to incite and foment this atmosphere deliberately,” he added, attacking those who want to foster division for political ends or profit from war through arms dealing.
“But war means children, women and the elderly in refugee camps, it means forced displacement, destroyed houses, streets and factories; above all, countless shattered lives.
“You know this well, having experienced it here.”
The pontiff had earlier referred to Sarajevo, with its synagogues, churches and mosques, as a “European Jerusalem”, a crossroads of cultures, nations and religions which required “the building of new bridges while maintaining and restoring older ones”.
In a reference to the legacy of the war, which left Sarajevo in ruins and Bosnia permanently divided along ethnic lines, he urged the country’s Muslim, Serb and Croat communities to reach out to each other at every level.
“In so doing, even the deep wounds of the recent past will be set aside,” Francis said in a meeting with officials of the rotating presidency.
Later, at a meeting with Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox religious figures, he said Sarajevo could reclaim its former status as a beacon of multiculturalism.
“In a world unfortunately rent by conflicts, this land can become a message: attesting that it is possible to live together side by side, in diversity but rooted in common humanity.”
The pope boarded a plane back to Rome at around 1840 GMT, after spending roughly 10 hours in the Bosnian capital.
Lack of trust
Despite a show of unity to welcome the pope, it was not hard to find reminders on Saturday of how fragile Bosnia’s unity is.
It was noticeable that there were far more red and white Croatian flags being waved than Bosnia’s blue and yellow ones.
The national anthem played for Francis on his arrival remains without words because the three communities have been unable to agree a common text.
Katarina Dzrek, a Bosnian Croat who was in the stadium crowd, said: “Bosnia is in need of the message of peace the pope will send because there is still a lack of trust between the communities.”
The 1992-95 Bosnian war left nearly 100,000 people dead and resulted in half the population, some two million people, being forced to leave their homes — many of them never to return.
More than a third of Bosnia’s pre-war ethnic Croat population have left the country, which is now divided in two between a Bosnian Serb republic and a Croat-Muslim federation.
At the city’s cathedral Francis heard testimony from Catholics who suffered during the war. Ljubica Sekerija, a nun, told him how she had been beaten and threatened with death by “foreign soldiers” if she did not convert to Islam, while Jozo Puskaric recounted his four months spent in a concentration camp. “It was 120 days that felt like 120 years for me,” the priest told Francis.
Francis said interfaith dialogue was vital to overcoming the legacy of such bitter memories.
“Dialogue is a school of humanity and a builder of unity,” he said at the interfaith meeting he attended.
Around 40 percent of the population of Bosnia is of Islamic heritage, just over 30 percent are from the Serbian Orthodox tradition and around one in 10, almost uniquely Croats, describe themselves as Catholics.
Francis is the second pope to visit Sarajevo after Blessed John Paul II, who braved a snowstorm to come two years after the end of the war. AFP