Arriving in a country whose national anthem has no lyrics, because its bickering ethnic groups cannot agree on them, Pope Francis on Saturday called for greater religious reconciliation and an end to the sectarian conflicts that still threaten Bosnia and proliferate around the world in “a kind of third world war being fought piecemeal.”
The pope praised the progress Bosnia has made since the bloody ethnic conflict of the 1990s, and especially since pope John Paul II’s visit in 1997, when religious tensions were still high.
“We should not become complacent with what has been achieved so far, but rather seek to make further efforts towards reinforcing trust and creating opportunities for growth in mutual knowledge and respect,” Francis said.
In a whirlwind half-day visit — the eighth foreign trip of his papacy and the second this year — the 78-year-old pontiff spoke to 65,000 ecstatic followers during an outdoor Mass in the stadium where Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.
He also met with Bosnia’s three presidents, one from each of the country’s official minorities — Serbian Christian Orthodox, Croatian Catholic and Muslim — who trade off head-of-state duties every eight months. Before returning to the Vatican in the evening, he also planned sessions with religious leaders and a multiethnic gathering of students.
“I am pleased to be in this city which, although it has suffered so much in the bloody conflicts of the past century, has once again become a place of dialogue and peaceful coexistence,” Francis said.
Progress has been made in reconciling the country’s religious and ethnic groups, Bosnian Chairman of the Presidency Mladen Ivanic said in an interview.
“There are, at the moment, no major disputes between the religions,” Ivanic said. “I don’t want to say it’s paradise. The truth is we are still a divided society.”
The Bosnian Council of Interreligious Dialogue, formed to bring together the country’s disparate clerics, is working well, he said.
“Yes, the council is working,” said the papal nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, the Vatican’s ambassador to Bosnia. “Now, what is needed is to translate this capacity for dialogue to all people. We need people to understand that religion is not a reason for friction. It is an instrument to resolve friction.”
The ethnic conflict of the 1990s, in which 100,000 people died and Sarajevo was under siege, ended with the Dayton Accords, negotiated in 1995 in Ohio. Under the agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a central government, but the country was subdivided — temporarily, it was hoped — into a Serb-dominated region and another mixing areas dominated by Muslims and Croatians.
Two decades later, it remains divided.
“The Dayton agreement was meant to be temporary, but there is no movement to replace it,” said Zlatko Dizdarevic, former Bosnian ambassador to Croatia, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. “Instead, the common interest of political leaders is maintaining their own position.”
While political progress stalls, he said, the economy staggers under a 50 percent unemployment rate, with 60 percent of workers depending on the government for their wages.
“At the top level, where we have this council, it is excellent,” said Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat who is the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, responsible for overseeing the task of carrying out the Dayton Accords. “It is also excellent at the bottom, the neighbor-to-neighbor level. It is in the middle you still have some dissonance, at the political level and at the level of lower clergy.”
Cardinal Vinko Puljic, archbishop of the diocese that includes Sarajevo, agreed that those political leaders who continued to emphasize religious differences and press ethnic nationalism were the chief obstacles to Bosnian progress.
“What is needed here is to create a normal state, but the problem is at the political level,” he said. “The country is divided. Ethnic groups have separate schools, separate territories, even separate histories. There are not equal rights for everyone. We have criminal activities and corruption.”
Slobodan Soja, a historian who was Bosnia’s ambassador to France and Egypt, said the pope’s message of economic fairness and religious peace had a special resonance for Bosnians who were haunted by the horrible conflicts of the past century.
“He speaks in a way that really reaches the common people,” Soja said. “Of course, his visit will change nothing. Once he leaves, our political leaders will continue to speak about nationalism and religion.”
Sarajevo’s streets were nearly cleared of regular traffic on Saturday morning as a stream of hundreds of buses poured in from across the region, disgorging tens of thousands of people. What had once been known as “Sniper Alley,” a riverside road that separated Serbian and Muslim forces during the conflict, was suddenly a winding line of buses cooling in the shade of bird-filled trees.
Vendors sold bottled water, papal T-shirts and other souvenirs. Sidewalks were choked with worshippers waving flags and marching as far as 3.2km to get to the crowded stadium where, under a blazing sun, Francis did his best to encourage reconciliation.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned against the “hasty” relaxation of anti-coronavirus measures, state media reported on Friday, indicating the country would keep its borders closed for the foreseeable future. North Korea in late January closed its borders as the virus spread in neighboring China, and imposed tough restrictions that put thousands of its people into isolation. Pyongyang insists it has not had a single case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that has swept the world infecting more than 10.8 million people and killing more than 500,000. Analysts have said that North Korea is unlikely to have avoided the contagion