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Pope John Paul Reaches Out to Bosnia

June 22, 2003

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Embarking on ``a voyage in the heart of pain,″ Pope John Paul II is reaching out to this embittered Balkan nation to help it overcome more than a decade of ethnic hatred.

Enfeebled by Parkinson’s disease and hip and knee ailments, the 83-year-old pope hoped Sunday’s trip would help rival Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs put their differences behind them and forge a lasting multiethnic society.

Eight years after Bosnia’s devastating 1992-95 war, which killed an estimated 250,000 people and made refugees of 1.8 million others, the nation remains under international administration as it struggles to overcome ethnic divisions and catch up with the rest of Europe.

John Paul’s visit ``will be a strong message to the public of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to the region, to Europe and to the world that we are moving down a new road,″ said Zoran Djeric, the Bosnian Serb interior minister.

``There is a new breeze here,″ he said. ``We are ready for the integration that lies ahead of us to become truly a part of Europe ... Bad times and bad people are history.″

Sunday’s visit is John Paul’s second to Bosnia and the 101st foreign pilgrimage of his nearly 25-year papacy. It comes just two weeks after a grueling five-day tour of neighboring Croatia. The pope visited the capital, Sarajevo, in 1997.

In his Mass at the monastery of Petricevac, which was blown up by Serbs during the war, John Paul planned to beatify 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, making it likely that Merz could be Bosnia’s first saint.

The pope also planned to meet with local Muslim and Serbian Orthodox Church leaders _ part of his ongoing effort to reconcile the two quarreling branches of Christianity while reaching out to the Islamic world.

John Paul also was scheduled to privately visit Banja Luka’s cathedral before returning to Rome in the evening.

Although nearly 1 million refugees have yet to return to their prewar homes, more Bosnians say they feel safe living as ethnic minorities.

``I don’t look at who’s a Serb or a Muslim,″ said Nerma Heldic, an 18-year-old Muslim sitting outside an Islamic community center next to a weedy lot where a mosque once stood until local Serbs blew it up during the war. ``My best friend is a Serb _ she’s like a sister to me.″

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 to homes they fled fearing bloodshed at the hands of Serbs.

The Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, called the visit ``a voyage in the heart of pain.″

``The pope is coming to Banja Luka’s Catholics, but there are no Catholics here,″ lamented the region’s bishop, Monsignor Franjo Komarica.

Security was heavy for the pope’s stop in Banja Luka, the administrative center 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.

``Those who are considering causing some trouble: Don’t even think about it. I’m serious,″ said Bosnian Serb police chief Radomir Njegus.


On the Net:

Bosnian visit in English, www.papaubih.ba/engleski/index.htm

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