Pope John Paul II reached out to the embittered people of Bosnia-Herzegovina today, asking God’s forgiveness for “so much suffering and bloodshed” inflicted by Roman Catholics and others.
Enfeebled by Parkinson’s disease and hip and knee ailments, the 83-year-old Pontiff urged Bosnia’s rival Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs to search their hearts, put their differences behind them and forge a lasting multi-ethnic society.
Under heavy security, John Paul celebrated Mass for 45,000 pilgrims at the monastery of Petricevac, which was blown up by Serb saboteurs in 1995 near the end of a devastating three-year war.
The conflict killed 250,000 people and made refugees of 1.8 million others.
In 1942, 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, seated in a special hydraulic chair, appeared to be holding up well. 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, in a private meeting, the leaders promised the Pope they would return to the Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities property seized by the communists after the Second World War, 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,” the pope said.
“The root of every good – and, sadly, every evil – is in the depths of the heart. It is there that change must occur.”
He also expressed the hope that in the future, Bosnia will realise its aspirations to join a united Europe.
It was John Paul’s second visit to Bosnia and the 101st foreign pilgrimage of his nearly 25-year papacy. It comes just two weeks after a gruelling five-day tour of neighbouring Croatia. The pope visited the capital, Sarajevo, in 1997.
The pope was to meet later with local Serbian Orthodox Church leaders – part of his ongoing effort to reconcile the two quarrelling branches of Christianity while also reaching out to Muslims and Jews.
He extended “fraternal greetings” to the leaders, who had front-row seats for today’s Mass.
John Paul was scheduled to privately visit Banja Luka’s cathedral before returning to Rome in the evening.
Although nearly a million refugees have yet to return to their pre-war homes, more Bosnians say they feel safe living as ethnic minorities.
“This is the only happiness in my life – my only joy,” said Stefka Topic, 80, a Croat returnee. “I will be in front of God real soon. I’m going home happy because I know Banja Luka is going to be a holy place after this.”
Security was tight for the Pope’s stop in Banja Luka, the administrative centre of the Bosnian Serb mini-state.
More than 4,000 police officers backed by Nato-led peacekeepers and a European police force were deployed to guard against any violence or protests. Snipers took up positions on rooftops and Nato helicopters flew overhead.
In this mostly Orthodox Serb city, the pope was reaching out to the region’s Croat minority. Before the war, about 30,000 Croats lived in Banja Luka. Today, only about 2,000 have returned. Many of today’s pilgrims travelled from other parts of Bosnia and from neighbouring Croatia.
Alluding to an exodus of Bosnians that continues today for economic reasons, John Paul said: “The future of this land depends also on you. Do not seek a more comfortable life elsewhere.”