New York Times

April 14, 1997

Pope Urges People of Sarajevo to Forgive


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- In a cold wind and billowing snow, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on Sunday in Sarajevo, within sight of a hillside graveyard full of victims of the Bosnian war, and urged the crowd of about 35,000 people to have the courage to forgive.

The 76-year-old pope came here on a visit that was first planned more than two and a half years ago but was canceled for security reasons as Bosnian Serbs shelled the city. He was greeted on Sunday by groups of pilgrims, many of whom had traveled through the night on buses from predominantly Roman Catholic parts of Bosnia or from neighboring Croatia.

But the flags they waved reflected the divisions that continue to split Bosnia's three main groups -- Catholic Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Muslims. Besides the Vatican's yellow-and-white banner, the flags in evidence on Sunday were either Croatia's or a similar one used by Bosnia's Croatian nationalists. Bosnia's blue-and-white flag with its yellow fleur-de-lis was conspicuously absent.

For many Sarajevans, the impact of the pope's visit lay mainly in his simply coming here, lending his moral authority to the task of rebuilding a society shattered by war.

But the pope, whose visit here has been described by some Vatican analysts as the most difficult of his 75 foreign trips as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, pressed ahead. Speaking in a downtown sports stadium, he brought a message of reconciliation, but he also offered solace to Bosnia's dwindling Catholic population.

At a meeting later on Sunday with Roman Catholic clergy, he said their second task, after healing "minds tried by suffering," was to denounce attempts to "try to strike directly at the believers in the church by intimidation or acts of intolerance."

The pope also met separately on Sunday with Bosnia's other religious leaders, representing the Orthodox Christians, the Muslims and the Jews, offering each the same message of reconciliation.

Had he visited here in September 1994 as planned, the pope would have come with a strong and simple call for an end to war and violence. His message on Sunday was necessarily more complicated, combining words of conciliation for the community at large with words of support for his own Roman Catholic flock.

During the two-hour Mass on Sunday, the pope was sheltered from periodic snow gusts by an umbrella held by an altar boy, but he had no protection from the chilly wind that blew down from the snow-topped mountains that surround this hilly city. His face was ruddy from the cold and his step slow, as it has been for many months, but his voice was strong as he read and sang the Mass.

Hours before his arrival here from Rome on Saturday, the police discovered a cache of 23 mines planted along the route of the pope's motorcade from the airport -- a stretch known during the city's three-year siege as Sniper's Alley. Heavy security continued on Sunday, provided by both the Bosnian police and by the NATO forces here to preserve the tenuous peace achieved at the end of 1995 under the Dayton agreement.

Carl Bildt, Bosnia's civilian administrator appointed under the Dayton accord, said on Sunday that it was still too early to determine whether the mines were planted in an attempt to harm the pope and if so, by whom. "It was a source of major concern yesterday, to put it mildly," he said.

President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, offered to accompany his guest along the motorcade route as a gesture of solidarity against terrorist threats.

Relations between Catholics and Muslims have been strained in recent months by a spate of bomb attacks against churches and mosques, as the two groups consolidate their communities in Bosnia.

The pope has heard repeated appeals from the Catholic clergy in Bosnia for his support in keeping their faithful from declining even further. The number of Catholics in Sarajevo, for instance, has gone from 50,000 to 20,000 since the war began.

Because of the war, "our parish and diocesan communities face a real danger of being completely wiped out," Cardinal Vinko Puljic, archbishop of Sarajevo, said at the Mass on Sunday. "We cannot and should not accept this."

Meeting on Sunday with the Muslim, Croatian and Serbian members of the Bosnian presidency, the pope again urged them to pursue their dialogue. "For the edifice of peace to be solid, against the background of so much blood and hatred, it will have to build on the courage of forgiveness," he said as he addressed them jointly before individual meetings with each of them.

Other Places of Interest on the Web: The Vatican