We might wish to forget the war, but Bosnia is still on a knife-edge

Pope Francis greets the crowd outside Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sarajevo on Saturday during his visit to Bosnia (CNS)

The Pope’s latest trip aboard, this time to Bosnia, brief as it was, was perhaps more significant that many may realise.

Firstly, the trip was hugely important to the Catholics of Bosnia who comprise about 15 per cent of the population. Bosnia’s population is under 4 million, so there may be about 600, 000 Catholics there. They are organised in four dioceses. It is not easy being a Catholic in Bosnia, so it must be encouraging to be visited by the Pope.

Secondly, the Pope’s visit to Bosnia must have been very important to those non-Catholics in Bosnia who desperately want their land to develop as a normal country. The Pope came speaking of peace, and to have such a major international figure doing so would have been encouraging for those Bosniacs and Serbs who wish to repair the profound damage done to the country by its civil war. The Pope’s words will be a counterweight to those religious leaders who wish to entrench sectarian divisions, and an indication that religion does not of its nature have to propagate division.

The Bosnian trip is also important to the rest of the world as well. It is now 20 years since the Dayton Accords brought peace to the Balkans, but that peace is fragile. Indeed, Dayton, while it secured an end to hostilities and the frightful atrocities that took place in the conflict, has not brought about peace and reconciliation. Bosnia remains a divided country. While we would all much rather forget about the Bosnian war, and pretend it did not happen, the Pope’s presence in Bosnia reminds us that Bosnia remains on a knife edge.

Bosnia is not alone in this. Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Rwanda, to name but three, are places where power-sharing is in fact a formula for power-splitting; and we could add Belgium and Canada to the list of countries which are divided linguistically without ever having descended into civil war. As for the dangers of civil war, what is currently happening in Syria should be a daily reminder of how dreadful sectarian conflict can be. The same goes for Iraq. So when the Pope speaks of the necessity of peace-making, as opposed to just making peace accords work, or simply talking about peace, he should be listened to. 

The Pope is effectively challenging us all to become builders of peace in the world. It is hard to know where we can start, but one thing is clear. We must hold our politicians to account, and we must never lend our support to sectarian ideologues. Our politicians must bring international pressure to bear on those who, as was the case in the Bosnian conflict, export war to other countries. And they must crack down upon those who promote war-mongering ideology in peaceful countries like Britain, urging foolish and impressionable young people to go abroad to take up arms against perceived foes.

The Bosnian war was where this tendency, for foreigners to turn up and take part in a conflict with which they had only an ideological connection, first emerged.  That this is still going on, in Syria and Iraq, for example, is not just worrying, but inexcusable. Those who went to fight in Bosnia then, it is thought, went on to fight elsewhere: and so it will prove in Syria and Iraq. Slobadan Milosevic may be dead, but other governments today are still deeply engaged in exporting war.

The Pope’s trip to Bosnia reminds us all of the structural challenges to peace that exist in today’s world. Our government would do well to listen, and to disrupt relations with international war-mongers, as well as to clamp down more effectively on jihadists at home.