Enfeebled by Parkinson's disease and hip and knee ailments, the 83-year-old pope urged Bosnia's Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs to put their differences behind them and forge a lasting multiethnic society.
Under heavy security, John Paul celebrated Mass for 45,000 pilgrims at the monastery of Petricevac, which was destroyed by Serb saboteurs in 1995 near the end of a devastating three-and-half-year war. The conflict killed 250,000 people and made refugees of 1.8 million others.
During World War II, a priest from Petricevac led Croat fascists armed with hatchets and knives to a nearby village where they butchered 2,300 Serbs, including 500 women and children.
“From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask Almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom also by children of the Catholic Church,” John Paul said in Bosnian.
The region's bishop, Monsignor Franjo Komarica, called for “forgiving at the same time the crimes committed by others while seeking forgiveness for the crimes committed by members of the Catholic Church of present and past generations.”
The pope sat in a special hydraulic chair. A canopy in the Vatican colours, yellow and white, shielded him from a withering sun.
He beatified Ivan Merz, a Catholic theologian who took a vow of celibacy and devoted his life to the church in the early 1900s. Beatification is the last step before possible sainthood, and Merz would be Bosnia's first saint.
John Paul was greeted at Banja Luka’s airport by the Serb, Croat and Muslim members of Bosnia’s joint presidency. Later, the leaders promised the pope they would return to the Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities property seized by the communists after World War II, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.
Eight years after the war, Bosnia remains under international administration as it struggles to overcome ethnic divisions and catch up with the rest of Europe. “I know the long ordeal which you have endured, the burden of suffering that is a daily part of your lives,” John Paul said.
“Do not give up. Certainly, starting afresh is not easy. It requires sacrifice and steadfastness if society is to take on a truly human face and everyone is to look to the future with confidence. It is necessary to rebuild man from within, healing wounds and achieving genuine purification of memory through mutual forgiveness.”