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Pope Francis Visits Sarajevo To Encourage Reconciliation

Pope Francis Visits Sarajevo
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Pope Francis Visits Sarajevo (RFE/RL's Balkan Service -- natural sound)

Pope Francis has urged Bosnia's Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics to put the "deep wounds" of their past behind them and work together for a peaceful future.

Francis, who is on a one-day visit to encourage reconciliation following the 1992-1995 war, received a joyous welcome from thousands of cheering Bosnians who lined his motorcade route from Sarajevo airport through the mostly Muslim city of 300,000.

Children dressed in traditional folk outfits representing Bosnia's three main religious confessions greeted Francis at the airport, Muslim carpenters crafted the wooden throne he sat on, and a Catholic pigeon breeder provided the white pigeons that the three members of Bosnia's collective presidency and Francis set free in a sign of peace.

In his speech to Bosnia's three-member presidency, Francis called for Bosnians to oppose the "barbarity" of those who want to continue sowing division "as a pretext for further unspeakable violence."

The pontiff called on Bosnians to continue working for peace and respectful coexistence through patient, trustful dialogue.

"This will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred," he said.

Francis then officiated an open-air mass, the central event of the visit, in a Sarajevo stadium in the presence of some 65,000 people, most of them Catholics.

He repeated the call for peace, but said that "the desire for peace and the commitment to build peace collide against the reality of many armed conflicts presently affecting our world," and described the present-day atmosphere as "a kind of a third world war."

In addition to the mass, the 78-year-old pope had scheduled meetings with government officials, priests and nuns from the region, as well as an interfaith gathering, and finally a rally with young people.

Vatican officials say Francis believes he can have a positive impact by promoting interfaith communication.

In a message to the residents of Sarajevo earlier this week, he wrote: "I come amongst you... to express my support for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and above all to encourage peaceful cohabitation in your country."

Sarajevo, once a multicultural hub, is also now largely split along ethnic lines.

More than one-third of Bosnia's mostly Catholic Croats have left Bosnia since the war and the country of 3.8 million people is divided in two between a Bosnian Serb republic and a Croat-Muslim federation.

Around 40 percent of the population of Bosnia has an Islamic heritage, just over 30 percent are from the Serbian Orthodox tradition, and around one in ten, almost exclusively Croats, describe themselves as Catholics.

The Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin noted that the Catholic population had shrunk across Bosnia, in part because of the high unemployment rate -- currently 43 percent, with youth unemployment at 67 percent.

Many Catholics, who hold Croatian passports, have left to find work in the European Union.

VOX POP: Bosnians Share Hopes For Papal Visit

Bosnians Share Hopes For Papal Visit
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Security is high, with at least 5,000 police on duty, and a total of 100,000 people are expected to turn out to get a glimpse of the Argentinian pontiff.

On June 5, Islamists claiming to be members of the Islamic State (IS) group called for jihad in the Balkans in a video widely reported, although there appeared to be no explicit link to the papal visit.

The visit comes a month after a Bosnian Islamist shot one policeman dead and injured two others in an attack in the northeast.

On the eve of Francis's visit, Catholics across Bosnia dropped on their knees at an agreed time on the evening of June 5 during candlelit vigils to pray for all those around the world who are persecuted for their faith.

Francis is the second pope to visit Sarajevo. John-Paul II famously visited during a severe snowstorm in 1997 and six years later he visited the Bosnian Serb capital Banja Luka.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP
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