Pope Francis heads to Sarajevo with reconciliation message
Pope Francis flies into Sarajevo on Saturday bearing a message of reconciliation 20 years after peace accords which ended Bosnia's war but left the country divided on ethnic lines, AFP reports.
"I come amongst you ... to express my support for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, and above all to encourage peaceful cohabitation in your country," the pope wrote in a message to residents of the historic city earlier this week.
The one-day trip comes eight months after Francis visited Albania, another Balkan state on the periphery of Europe, and underlines the importance he attatches to the promotion of co-existence between peoples and faiths.
In Bosnia, as in Albania, power is shared between representatives of different religious traditions.
Since the 1995 Dayton accords which put an end to a three-year war which claimed 100,000 lives, the country of 3.8 million people has been divided between a Bosnian Serb republic and a Croat-Muslim federation in which Muslims form a majority over the predominately Roman Catholic ethnic Croats.
The country's presidency, rotated between the three communities every eight months, is currently held by the representative of the Bosnian Serbs. All three leaders will meet with Francis on Saturday morning.
"The pope is going to Sarajevo to deliver a message of peace, of reconciliation and joint construction in a country where interfaith dialogue is essential," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi.
The highlight of Francis's ten hours in the city will be an afternoon meeting between the pontiff and representatives of the city's Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and small Jewish communities.
Around 40 percent of the population of Bosnia is of Islamic heritage, just over 30 percent are from the Serbian Orthodox tradition and around ten percent, almost uniquely Croats, describe themselves as Catholics.
The two decades since the end of the war have seen a steady exodus of Bosnia's Croats with an estimated 300,000, more than a third of the pre-war number, having left for Croatia, other parts of Europe, Australia and North America.
Pope Francis will urge those remaining to stay and in his message to the people of Sarajevo he urges Bosnian Catholics to "contribute to the construction of a society that is moving towards peace, cohabitation and mutual cooperation."
Ivo Tomasevic, the secretary of the Bosnian conference of bishops, says the encouragement is welcome. "The pope wants to help us, to encourage Catholics to stay here but also to invite us all to build the country and to enter into dialogue."
An audience of 65,000 people is expected to attend an open air mass "for peace and justice" in Sarajevo's Olympic stadium.
The pope will also hear personal testimony from some of those who suffered during the war, including two priests and a nun.
At least 5,000 police will be on duty for the visit but the Vatican is playing down suggestions that it is a particularly high-risk trip.
"There are no particular concerns regarding security," spokesman Lombardi told reporters.
Francis is the second pope to visit Sarajevo. Jean-Paul II famously visited during a severe snowstorm in 1997 and six years later the Polish pope returned to Bosnia for a visit to the Bosnian Serb capital Banja Luka.
After the trip to Albania and another one-day visit to the European Parliament and Council of Europe in Strasbourg, this will be Francis's third official trip in Europe since his election in March 2013.