Bosnia awaits pope’s message of peace two decades after war

Bosnians prepare to welcome Pope Francis to a country still scarred by war

Bosnian wood carver-sculptor Salem Hajderovac works on a chair for  Pope Francis, at his workshop in Zavidovici, Bosnia. The chair, made from walnut trees, is to be used by the pope  during his visit to Sarajevo. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Bosnian wood carver-sculptor Salem Hajderovac works on a chair for Pope Francis, at his workshop in Zavidovici, Bosnia. The chair, made from walnut trees, is to be used by the pope during his visit to Sarajevo. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

A dark-green military helicopter swept low over Sarajevo yesterday, the clatter of its rotor blades bouncing off the stone roofs of the city’s old town, and between minarets and church spires that stretch into the blue sky of a Bosnian summer.

“Don’t worry,” said Nenad, a waiter serving Turkish coffee at a busy cafe, smiling.

“It’s nothing bad this time – they’re just getting ready for the pope.”

Twenty years after Serb forces were besieging and bombing Sarajevo, and bearing down on what was then the little-known town of Srebrenica, Bosnians are preparing to welcome Pope Francis to a capital and a country still scarred by war.

He will spend Saturday in Sarajevo, bringing what the Vatican says will be a message of peace and reconciliation, one month before Bosnia and the world mark two decades since some 8,000 Muslims were massacred 130km away at Srebrenica.

Inter-religious dialogue

Bosnia is now peaceful, but the country is still struggling to overcome the legacy of a 1992-1995 war that killed more than 100,000 people and displaced about two million.

The Dayton agreement that ended fighting in late 1995 divided Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat federation and Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, which are supposed – but often fail – to co-operate on a national level.

Corruption, poverty and the cumbersome bureaucracy of the political system compound lingering suspicion between Bosnia’s Muslim majority (46 per cent of the population), Orthodox Serbs (about 38 per cent) and the Catholic Croat minority (15 per cent).

Tension between the communities has been cranked up in recent months by a series of police raids on suspected radical Islamists, which have resulted in a number of arrests and warnings that young Bosnians are being recruited by Islamic State.

Security will be tight for the pope’s 11-hour stay in Sarajevo, but local and Vatican officials say they have no knowledge of any specific threats to the pontiff’s safety.

All major political and religious figures in Bosnia have welcomed the visit of the pope, who is due to meet officials and diplomats, Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox leaders and to say Mass for some 60,000 people at Sarajevo’s Olympic stadium.

He will celebrate Mass from a specially made chair, fashioned from walnut by a Muslim wood carver, Edin Hajderovac.

Children’s choir

“This choir is a multi-ethnic project of reconciliation . . . Friendships were born here, I hope lifelong ones.” Srebrenica-born Ismar Poric, who heads the choir of 220 children, said recently.

“This kind of mix is what we need in Bosnia . . . These children are a model.”