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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 June, 2003, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Pope on second Balkan visit
By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst

Pope John Paul II goes to Bosnia-Hercegovina on Sunday for a one-day visit, the main religious purpose of which is the beatification of a Catholic layman, Ivan Merz, active in the 1920s.

Merz was born in Banja Luka - now the capital of the Bosnian Serb republic, one of Bosnia's two entities, from where most Catholics and Muslims were expelled during the war in the 1990s.

Bosnian stamp to commemorate visit
The Pope will use the visit to preach reconciliation
So what is the Pope hoping to achieve by visiting such seemingly inhospitable territory for the 101st trip of his papacy?

It was less than two weeks ago that the Pope finished his tour of Croatia - one of Europe's most fervently Catholic countries.

The very fact of the Pope's visit to the Bosnian Serb stronghold is a sign of the distance Bosnia has travelled since the war.

Back in 1994, when he wanted to go to besieged Sarajevo, he was prevented from doing so by the Bosnian Serbs who said his safety could not be guaranteed.

Resentment

Three years later, by which time the country was at peace, the Pope did make it to Sarajevo - which is part of Bosnia's other entity, the Muslim-Croat federation. But it would have seemed inconceivable then that he could have made a successful visit to Banja Luka.

Defaced poster of Pope in Banja Luka
The visit is not completely risk-free
Serbs in Bosnia and elsewhere were still resentful of the Pope's implicit, but clear, calls for outside intervention to stop the aggression which the Vatican, like much of the international community, associated with the Bosnian Serbs.

At that time, in 1997, many of the Bosnian Serbs' ultranationalist wartime leaders were still in positions of power across their republic.

And the Serb Orthodox Church was reluctant to engage in a dialogue with the Vatican which it had accused before and during the war of supporting Catholic Croatia in a bid to undermine Orthodoxy across the Balkans.

On grounds of security alone, it would have been difficult to go ahead with a papal trip.

Appeal for calm

Even now the Pope's visit to Banja Luka is not entirely free of risk.

Even now Banja Luka - once a mixed community - remains a predominantly Serb place

Two years ago Bosnian Serb demonstrators staged a riot when attempts were made to lay the foundation stone for rebuilding Banja Luka's most famous Muslim place of worship, the Ferhadija mosque, which had been destroyed during the war along with the city's other 15 mosques.

The security situation has greatly improved in the last two years as international agencies have continued to consolidate their grasp on Bosnia.

The current, more pragmatic, Bosnian Serb leadership has appealed for calm during the Pope's visit.

But even now Banja Luka - once a mixed community of traditionally Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats - remains a predominantly Serb place.

More than seven years after the end of the war only about 3% of the 70,000 Croats ethnically cleansed from Banja Luka municipality have returned to their pre-war homes.

Encouragement

As the local Catholic bishop, Franjo Komarica, put it, the rate of refugee returns remains "shamefully low".

Site where Pope will hold mass
Thousands are expected to attend the papal Mass
Part of the Pope's mission is to bolster the beleaguered Catholic community throughout Bosnia, where their total numbers, at around 460,000 are still substantially down on pre-war figures nearer 800,000.

He will use the occasion of the beatification to strengthen the spirits of the now tiny local Catholic community and encourage others to return there.

Tens of thousands of Catholics from across Bosnia and Croatia are expected to attend the Mass.

Belgrade upgrade

The Pope's forthcoming visit is also an occasion for him to preach the message of reconciliation and to foster better relations with the Serbs and their Orthodox Church.

So far he has received mixed signals. The Orthodox Church is likely to be represented by relatively low-level dignitaries at a meeting scheduled with the Pope. And further afield, in Serbia itself, the Orthodox hierarchy has shown little inclination to host a papal visit.

On the other hand, the Belgrade authorities are keen to show their commitment to Europe and Western values by upgrading their relations with the papacy.

Only three weeks ago the President of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, called on the Pope during a visit to the Vatican, and he made it clear that his government would like to welcome the pontiff to Belgrade.

Whether such a visit can take place will, in the end, depend primarily on the attitude of the Serb Orthodox Church. But a successful trip to Banja Luka may help remove some of the remaining obstacles.


SEE ALSO:
In pictures: Pope visits Dubrovnik
06 Jun 03  |  Photo Gallery
Pope praises 'sensitive' women
06 Jun 03  |  Europe


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