Pope asks for Croats and Serbs to be reconciled

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The Independent Online

Pope John Paul II yesterday asked for God's forgiveness for sins committed by Catholics in the turbulent history of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom also by children of the Catholic Church, and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness," the Pope said in Banja Luka.

The Vatican hopes the apology will lead to a badly needed reconciliation with Orthodox Serbs and help build a multi-ethnic society. "Only in a climate of true reconciliation will the memory of so many innocent victims and their sacrifice not be in vain, but encourage everyone to build new relationship of fraternity and understanding," the Pope said yesterday, calling for reconciliation between the two opposed, yet Christian, nations.

The site of the mass - the monastery of Petricevac - was highly symbolic. The first massacre of Orthodox Serbs in the Second World War in the Banja Luka region began after a Franciscan priest, Tomislav Filipovic, left the monastery at Petricevac and joined the fascist Ustashi forces in a killing spree 60 years ago.

More than 2,500 Serbs, including 550 children, were killed. The Ustashi regime was notorious for its systematic extermination of Serbs, Jews and gypsies. Fifty years later, local Croats faced mass expulsions. The church and the Franciscan monastery in Petricevac were burned to the ground in 1995.

The official reason for the Pope's visit was the beatification of a 20th-century Catholic layman, Ivan Merz, from Banja Luka. Merz devoted his life to the religious revival of Catholic youth in neighbouring Croatia.

The Pope, weakened by Parkinson's disease and crippling knee and hip ailments, looked drawn and uncomfortable as he sat under a yellow canopy during an open-air mass for 50,000 pilgrims. The temperature reached 30C but he held up during the nearly three-hour service.

The apology for past Catholic sins has often been mentioned as the precondition for the Pope's first meeting with the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle. Their meeting could pave the way for the first Papal visit to Russia, also an Orthodox country.

Only 15,000 Croats and Muslims currently live in this city, outnumbered by 300,000 Orthodox Serbs - the pre-war Croat community numbered 80,000. Most of the congregation who came to see the Pope travelled from neighbouring Croatia and other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Croat communities remain.

For those who left Banja Luka as refugees and returned for the Pope's 10-hour visit yesterday, the experience must have been strange. Streets and squares have new, aggressively Serbian names, such as Street of Serb Defenders, Serbian Army and Square of Serb Rulers. The streets of Banja Luka were deserted except for thousands of police and pilgrims amid the heaviest security measures the city has ever seen. The pilgrims followed instructions and carried no Croatian or other flags. They sang religious songs only after arriving in Petricevac.

They left quietly, long columns of young and old with shields bearing the inscription "Blessed are the pure in heart" - the motto of the first papal visit to a mostly Orthodox area.

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