SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Pope Francis will call for lasting reconciliation this week when he visits Bosnia, a country that remains ethnically and religiously fractured 20 years after the end of a civil war.
With his one-day visit to Sarajevo, the pope is lending his weight to a fresh bid by the European Union to bring change to a country still scarred by the war that claimed 100,000 lives after it broke away from Yugoslavia.
In April 1997, visiting a devastated and snowbound Sarajevo less than two years after the war’s end, the then pope, John Paul II, urged “the courage of forgiveness” and reconciliation.
But 18 years on, Bosnia remains politically divided along ethnic lines and trailing its ex-Yugoslav peers on the road to integration with Western Europe.
Francis’s visit comes just days after the EU set into action a long-delayed agreement on closer ties with Bosnia, a first step towards possible EU membership and a bid to address frustrations over poverty and corruption that were behind widespread civil unrest in February 2014.
Fikret Novalic, prime minister of the Bosniak-Croat Federation - one of two regional entities, along with the Serb Republic, that make up the country - said the papal visit, combined with the EU deal, “may be part of this synchronized international action towards Bosnia”.
“Bosnia is again in the spotlight ... and we realize this is a chance for us to join the modern world,” Novalic said of the EU deal, in force since June 1, which unlocks funds in return for political and economic reforms.
Tens of thousands are expected to attend on open-air Mass in Sarajevo’s Kosevo stadium. A Bosnian woodcarver and devout Muslim has made the pope’s chair, foregoing his fee that a Catholic parish had offered to pay.
At an inter-religious meeting, the pope will stress the role of different faiths in overcoming divisions.
Catholics, the vast majority of them ethnic Croats, account for about 15 percent of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people. Croats share power with Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia’s Federation, created along with the Serb Republic under a U.S.-brokered peace deal that divided up government in an unwieldy system of ethnic quotas plagued by nationalist politicking.
Calls for reconciliation and the EU initiative face hurdles, however, with threats to secede growing louder from the Serb Republic, emboldened by ally Russia’s actions in its ex-Soviet backyard and signs of renewed Kremlin interest in the Balkans.
Some Catholic Croats, too, say they want their own entity, like the Orthodox Serbs.
But Francis, in a video message this week, called on Catholics “to stand side by side with your fellow citizens as witnesses of the faith and love of God and to work for a society that walks towards peace in friendship and reciprocal collaboration”.
Ivo Markovic, a Franciscan friar and theology professor, said he feared the pope’s message may go unheeded.
“Our politicians are hopelessly unable to hear and understand Pope Francis; they can only instrumentalize faith and God in the manner they have done so since the beginning,” he said.
Dino Abazovic, a lecturer in the sociology of religion at the University of Sarajevo, told Reuters: “It’s high time that they make the right decisions regardless of the arrival of such an important person, otherwise this could become yet another protocol visit forgotten ... and consigned to history.”
Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy