Pontiff seeks to heal wounds of war

Sunday, June 8, 2003

OSIJEK, Croatia -- Pope John Paul II sought to heal the wounds of recent war and overcome ancient religious divisions Saturday in a Mass for 200,000 people who packed an airfield under a punishing sun.

Two people died of heat-related heart attacks during the ceremony in the eastern city of Osijek. At least 500 others sought medical treatment, including 150 who were hospitalized because of the 100-degree temperatures.

The frail, 83-year-old pope -- swathed in heavy robes but protected from the sun by a white canopy -- slumped in his chair at times but got through the ceremony. After finishing his homily, he briefly buried his head in his hands.

Later, John Paul was wheeled over a red carpet into the cathedral in nearby Djakovo, where he looked tired but alert as he said prayers.

"He is amazing," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. "What you can see everywhere is the inner strength of this man who keeps going without even asking himself, 'Am I tired? Is this too much?' He just keeps the pace -- the pace he has imposed on himself."

John Paul, making the 100th foreign tour of his papacy, brought a message of reconciliation to a corner of Croatia still embittered by the war for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. He also reached out to leaders of the Orthodox church, greeting two Serbian Orthodox bishops seated in the VIP section in black robes and wearing sunglasses.

Catholics and Orthodox

Relations between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have often been tense in Eastern Europe, where the Vatican is accused of trying to expand its influence in traditionally Orthodox lands. Last year, the pope reached out to Orthodox leaders in a visit to Bulgaria.

The dispute is particularly acute in Russia, thwarting John Paul's hopes of visiting that country.

Osijek saw some of Croatia's most vicious fighting during its war, along with nearby Vukovar, for Croats a symbol of wartime cruelty by Serbs.

"After the trying times of the war, which has left the people of this region with deep wounds not yet completely healed, a commitment to reconciliation, solidarity and social justice calls for courage on the part of individuals inspired by faith," he told the crowd.

The pope's third visit to the overwhelmingly Catholic country is testing his age and ailments once again.

John Paul suffers from Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments. Although a one-day trip to Bosnia is still on for later this month, Vatican officials have suggested that a visit to Mongolia in August could be dropped.

Navarro-Valls conceded Saturday that the five-day, five-city Croatia trip has been "very stressful" on the pope -- who has had to get on and off planes, vehicles and boats and endure intense summer heat -- but that John Paul was "very happy."

The Vatican, meanwhile, sought to play down reports of death threats against the pope by self-styled Islamic fundamentalists.

Security has been tight at all of the pope's stops. On Friday evening, the state-run news agency HINA reported that it and a Croatian Catholic news agency had received e-mails threatening to kill the pope "in the name of Allah."

The Interior Ministry said the e-mails, signed "the Islamic Front of el-Mujahadeen" and addressed to "the infidels," appeared to have originated in neighboring Bosnia. It said Croatian and international police were investigating, but there was no immediate danger to the pontiff.

Navarro-Valls said the Vatican receives such threats "from time to time" and turns them over to local authorities. He indicated there would be no changes in the pope's schedule.

The trip is John Paul's third visit to Croatia in nine years, an indication of the importance he attaches to this Catholic area of the Balkans.

"So much blood was spilled here," said Marinko Dalic, who lost a son and several relatives in the conflict. "I hope the pope's words and prayers will help to heal some of the wounds. But I'm afraid for many it will take much more time before we can look each other in the eyes."

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