As he began his visit, aimed at encouraging 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 John Paul II presided over an emotional post-war Mass of reconciliation in 1997.
“War — never again,” Francis said 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 city was once known as “Europe’s Jerusalem” for the peaceful co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews. However, it 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 groups greeted Francis at the airport. Muslim carpenters had 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 February 5, 1994, killed 68 people in one of the bloodiest single attacks of the war.
The area is still a market, but a wall painted red carries the names of the victims.
Despite the outward show of harmony, wounds still fester. Bosnia’s Christian Orthodox Serbs 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 left to find better fortunes in the EU, escaping an unemployment rate of 43%.
The Catholic Croat community represents only about 15% of the population – from more than 17% before the war. Muslim Bosniaks account for 40% and Orthodox Christian Serbs 31%, according to Vatican statistics.