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Bosnia: The Pope's Visit To 'Europe's Jerusalem'--Sarajevo

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 14 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II's visit to the ruined city of Sarajevo this weekend was a measure of his commitment to preserve the religious and ethnic diversity of the city he has often called "Europe's Jerusalem."

But his visit also provided a reminder how much of that diversity was lost in the Bosnian war and how difficult it is to regain it.

Sarajevo has for centuries contained a mixed population of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Jews. In this, the city was just like Jerusalem. Throughout the three and-a-half year war the pope urged Bosnians, and the West, to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina intact as an independent country to symbolize Europeans ability to live in tolerance with one another despite their differences.

The Pope first sought to bring that message to Sarajevo in September 1994, while the war was still raging. He failed, owing to the last moment refusal by the Bosnian Serbs beseiging the city to guarantee his safety and the warnings of UN peacekeepers that his presence might provoke futher violence.

Now, after the war in Bosnia ended with the December 1995 peace treaty, John Paul II was finally able to come and yesterday hold an open-air mass. And he said what he wanted to say three years before: that tolerance and the willingness of people to listen to one another are the only ways out of conflict:

The ailing 76-year-old Pope spoke in Sarajevo's sports stadium, which is now surrounded by the graves of thousands killed during the siege. He urged Bosnia and the rest of the world finally to say "no more" to war.

"We must recognize ... the right of every human being to live in peace and harmony," he said, while "condeming any form of intolerance and persecution rooted in ideologies which trample the inviolable dignity of the individual."

But even as the Pontiff brought his powerful message of reconciliation to Sarajevo, the circumstances of the visit made some observers wonder if he had not come too late to help save Sarajevo's multi-ethnic character. Most of the more than 30,000 people who attended the open-air mass were Croat Catholics who traveled to the capital by bus for the ceremony and left again immediately afterward. One of the results of the war is that some 150,000 Serbs and 100,000 Croats who once lived in Sarajevo have moved away, making it now an almost exclusively Bosnian-Muslim city.

Bosnia itself today exists as a country largely only on paper, and far more as a result of the peace terms than any reconciliation between its three religious and ethnic groups. Croats and Muslims exist in an uneasy federation which controls 51 percent of the country's territory, while the rest is a Serbian entity which regards Bosnia as an enemy state.

Still, the pope's visit was a welcome boost for all those in Bosnia who still hope to one day reconstruct a truly multi-ethnic country. Thousands of Muslims greeted the Pope on his way in from the airport on Saturday because they remember his war-time support for keeping Bosnia as a single state and his readiness to come even when the city was under siege.

But in a reminder that Sarajevo is still a dangerous place for the Pope to visit, the police discovered a bomb under a bridge along his route just hours before he arrived. It is not known who placed it.

Ready for the Pope's message or not, all Bosnians should have a reason to welcome him. The most prominent visitor to come in the past year, John Paul II helped to bring world's attention again -- however briefly -- on the city and the country in urgent need of renewal.