Papal visit prompts show of interfaith solidarity in Bosnia

SHAFAQNA – In a rare show of unity, Bosnians of all faiths have been preparing for Pope Francis visit next week to the country plagued by political and ethnic tensions nearly 20 years after the end of its 1992-95 war that claimed over 100,000 lives.

“Citizens from all ethnic groups openly express joy about his visit,” Tanja Topic, an analyst at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Banja Luka, capital of the Serb part of Bosnia, told Reuters on Thursday, May 28.

“This certainly has to do with the pope’s messages about the need for peace, unity and tolerance that he has been sending since he was elected.”

Pope Francis will visit Sarajevo next June 6, 20 years after the Bosnian War ended.

It will be Pope Francis’ eighth trip abroad and the 11th country he visits outside of Italy since his election two years ago.

Preparing for the visit, eagerly awaited by Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks have also taken an active part in preparing a warm welcome for Francis.

In Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serbs slaughtered around 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in 1995, a nine-year-old Muslim girl said the same thing in fewer words.

“For me, the pope is a good man,” said Zejfa Ahmetovic, a member of a multi-ethnic choir rehearsing a song for the Argentine-born pope.

The choir was founded in 2010 and has grown to see 220 children aged between 5 and 17 preparing for the arrival of the Pontiff.

Salim Hajderovac, a devout Bosniak Muslim woodcarver from the central town of Zavidovici, gave his Catholic neighbors a surprise by offering to make a chair for the pope.

“I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” he said, showing the imposing chair of walnut wood engraved with the papal coat-of-arms and emblems of Bosnian Catholic shrines.

Bosnia, a small country on the Balkan Peninsula, is home to three ethnic “constituent peoples”: mainly Muslim Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

Out of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s nearly 4 million population, some 40 percent are Muslims, 31 percent Orthodox Christians and 10 percent Catholics.

St. John Paul II visited Bosnia-Herzegovina twice in his 26-year-long pontificate, in 2003, and in 1997

The nation, he said later, was “a symbol of the contradictions and hopes” of the 20th century.’

Bosnia fell into civil war in 1992 that left 200,000 people dead and displaced millions as Serb forces launched ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims.

During the 43-month war, which claimed some 200,000 lives, nearly two million people fled their homes, half a million of them are still listed as refugees.

In the final months of the three-year war, Serb forces, led by General Ratko Mladic, overran Srebrenica, killing some 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

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