Pope to visit Serb town 'cleansed' of Catholic Croats

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The Independent Online

Pope John Paul II arrives tomorrow in Banja Luka on a controversial visit to the Serb stronghold from where tens of thousands of Catholic Croats were deported during the Bosnian civil war.

He is expected to call for tolerance and reconciliation among the three former warring parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Serbs, who now make up 90 per cent of the population of Banja Luka, the Croats and the Muslims. The 1992-95 war led to the deaths of more than 200,000 people and the "ethnic cleansing" of two million people, as Bosnian Serbs carved out their own republic.

Only a fraction of the pre-war Catholic and Muslim population remain in Banja Luka, where the Pope is to beatify Ivan Merz, a Catholic layman, before some 100,000 pilgrims in the district of Petricevac amid unprecedented security measures.

Bosnian Serb police said yesterday they had detained a number of ultra-nationalist Serbs suspected of posing a security threat to the Pope. According to the Bosnian Serb Republic's Interior Minister, Zoran Glusac, the police were also trying to track down protesters who had put up posters and leaflets displaying anti-Pope slogans.

"This is a highly risky event from the security point of view," said the Bosnian Serb police chief, Radomir Njegus. It is the first visit by the Pope to the Christian Orthodox, Serb-dominated region.

The Catholic pilgrims, almost all Croats, are travelling from Croatia and parts of Bosnia where a Catholic community still exists.

Only several thousand Croats now live in Banja Luka, compared with 80,000 before the war. The Muslim community has suffered the same fate. It is surrounded by 300,000 Serbs.

Analysts say that the Pope's visit to Banja Luka could open doors for a visit to Belgrade, the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, because he will meet the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Banja Luka, Jefrem. A visit to Belgrade could pave the way for a papal visit to Moscow.