Pope calls for forgiveness for Bosnia's bloody past

Monday, June 23, 2003

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Pope John Paul II asked God's forgiveness Sunday for "so much suffering and bloodshed" inflicted by Roman Catholics and others in this embittered Balkan land during two 20th-century wars.

As NATO peacekeeping troops provided security, the frail 83-year-old pope urged Bosnia's rival Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs to put their differences behind them and forge a lasting multiethnic society.

He stressed the need for a "genuine purification of memory through mutual forgiveness," a dominant theme of his nearly 25-year papacy.

John Paul, weakened by Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments, looked drawn and uncomfortable as he sat under a yellow canopy during an open-air Mass for 50,000 pilgrims. The temperature reached above 90 degrees, but he held up during the nearly three-hour service, slurring his words at times.

The Mass site -- the monastery of Petricevac -- was highly symbolic. It was destroyed by Serbs in 1995 near the end of a 3 1/2-year war that killed 250,000 people and created 1.8 million refugees.

During World War II, a priest from Petricevac led Croat fascists, armed with hatchets and knives, to a nearby village. In the 1942 attack, they butchered 2,300 Serbs, including 500 women and children.

Merz beatified

"From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask Almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom also by children of the Catholic Church," John Paul said in Bosnian.

The pope beatified Ivan Merz, a Catholic theologian who devoted his life to the church in the early 1900s. Beatification is the last step before possible sainthood, and Merz would be Bosnia's first saint.

The Vatican hoped the pope's visit and the beatification would strengthen Bosnia's minority Catholic community and halt an exodus the local church says is threatening it with extinction.

John Paul was greeted at Banja Luka's airport by the Serb, Croat and Muslim members of Bosnia's joint presidency. Later, in a private meeting, the leaders promised the pope they would return to the Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities property seized by the communists after World War II, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

Eight years after the war, Bosnia remains under international administration as it struggles to overcome ethnic divisions and catch up with the rest of Europe.

"I know the long ordeal which you have endured, the burden of suffering that is a daily part of your lives," John Paul said. "Do not give up. Certainly, starting afresh is not easy. It requires sacrifice and steadfastness if society is to take on a truly human face and everyone is to look to the future with confidence."

"It is necessary to rebuild man from within, healing wounds and achieving genuine purification of memory through mutual forgiveness," the pope said. "The root of every good -- and, sadly, every evil -- is in the depths of the heart. It is there that change must occur."

He also expressed the hope that Bosnia will realize its aspirations to join a united Europe.

It was John Paul's second visit to Bosnia and his 101st foreign pilgrimage. It came two weeks after a five-day tour of neighboring Croatia.

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

"This is the only happiness in my life -- my only joy," said Stefka Topic, 80, a Croat returnee. "I will be in front of God real soon. I'm going home happy because I know Banja Luka is going to be a holy place after this."

Security was tight 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 stood guard. Snipers patrolled rooftops and helicopters flew overhead.

Before the war, about 30,000 Croats lived in Banja Luka; only about 2,000 have returned. Many of Sunday's pilgrims traveled from other parts of Bosnia and neighboring Croatia.

On the Net:

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

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