With ethnic tensions increasing in Bosnia, Pope Francis called for reconciliation and an end to war during his flying visit to Sarajevo. Tens of thousands listened attentively to the Argentinian pontiff.
Pope Francis pressed for peace and reconciliation in Bosnia during his much-anticipated one-day trip to Sarajevo. During his public appeal, Francis listed many sufferings endured by Bosnians, describing refugee camps, destroyed infrastructure, and shattered lives.
The pope further emphasized the need to build a more peaceful and just society in Bosnia. He especially criticized the weapons industry, condemning "those who speculate on wars for the purpose of selling arms."
"Responsible politicians are called to the important task of being the first servants of their communities, taking actions safeguarding above all the fundamental rights, among which the right to religious freedom stands out," Francis said.
Thousands of Catholics mobilized
He then moved to Sarajevo's football stadium to hold an open-air mass. Some 65,000 people filled the stadium for the central event of the visit. It was the same stadium where Pope John Paul II made an emotional appeal after the war in 1997.
Hundreds of buses carrying Catholic pilgrims arrived overnight; those who could not attend the mass filled the square in front of the Catholic cathedral in Sarajevo.
"The cry of God's people goes up once again from this city, the cry of all men and women of good will: war never again," Francis said during the mass.
About 15 percent of Bosnia's population is made up of Catholics, who mainly live in the country's southwest region bordering Croatia. Many of the Catholics attending the pope's visit had not stepped foot into the predominantly Muslim city since John Paul's visit.
Tight security measures were in place throughout the entire visit, with all main streets in Sarajevo being closed off to traffic. More than 4,000 police and army personnel were deployed to protect the Pope, who himself opted to travel in a Ford Focus in a sign of modesty.
Pope calls for unity as tensions rise across Bosnia
The papal visit came as separatist movements calling for the secession of both the Croat and Serb regions of the country have lately been gaining momentum.
Concurrently, an agreement to create deeper cooperation between Bosnia and the EU was passed just days ago. It is intended to encourage political and economic stability in the Balkan republic, which hopes one day to join the EU.
The country's Muslim population meanwhile has been calling for a stronger centralized state as part of the initiative to encourage post-war reconciliation while trying to contain Islamist attitudes.
"We all need peace and to receive the pope's message," said Alma Mehmedic, a 55-year-old Muslim who waited to catch a glimpse of Francis outside the presidential palace. "I came today to give love and receive love."
Echoing those sentiments, Pope Francis said that even the deepest wounds could be "healed by purifying memories and firmly anchoring hopes in the future."
The former Yugoslavia was ravaged by war in the 1990s and still continues to suffer ethnical divisions between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslims. Some 100,000 people were killed and more than two million displaced during the five-year conflict.
ss/sgb (dpa, Reuters, AP)