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Papal visit brings joy to Bosnia, says cardinal

Cardinal Vinko Puljic unveils a statue of St John Paul II in front of the cathedral in Sarajevo (PA)

A papal visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina brings hope, joy and some “soul” to this ethnically divided, Catholic-minority Balkan nation, the country’s cardinal said.

When Pope Francis announced in February he would visit Sarajevo, it was the top story for all of the nation’s news outlets, and a “wave of optimism swept this country. We felt again: we are not forgotten,” Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo told Catholic News Service.

In a written and translated response to questions by email in mid-May, the cardinal said the country’s Muslim and Orthodox leaders welcomed the news “with an open heart” and were looking forward to the visit and meeting the pope.

The trip that will take place on June 6 will be the third visit by a Pope to the nation, which is still struggling with serious economic problems, religious discrimination and ethnic tensions after the 1992-95 war.

St John Paul II visited Bosnia-Herzegovina twice in his 26-year pontificate: in 2003, and in 1997 when he celebrated Mass in a snowstorm in the war-ravaged capital of Sarajevo.

Cardinal Puljic said the 1997 visit represented a “bright spot of life in this country. He encouraged us and strengthened our hope. He left us a wonderful message we can rely on.”

After St John Paul’s visit many people “felt relief. Something nice happened in Bosnia during his visit,” he said.

The late pope had called for an end to incomprehension and a new dawn of constructive dialogue and peaceful coexistence throughout a country that was then, and is still now, largely divided along ethnic lines.

“The Pope cannot create the policy, but he can bring soul into the policy; he can stress the importance of human beings in this globalised world,” the cardinal said.

The conflict saw a Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims after the mostly Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992.

Although the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting, they failed to create a full democracy and equal rights, the cardinal said.

The peace deal favoured the majority groups, who “did not care for equal rights for all” and weakened the minority groups, who are consistently outvoted, he said.

“It is necessary to create a system of laws where we are all equal. It is necessary to create jobs where people can work together” and make a living; only then will any political arrangement be acceptable and confidence in government return, he said.

Right now, he said, the Catholic Church is still struggling. A large amount of Church property that had been confiscated by Communist authorities still has not been returned. The number of Catholics declined by half during the war and their numbers continue to decline because of migration and shrinking birthrates.

The country’s ethnic Serb Republic of Srpska did not help the return of Croat and mostly Catholic refugees, the cardinal said.

Many Catholics did not go back because their rights were not guaranteed, especially concerning safety, and there was a complete lack of infrastructure, he said. “There was no water, telephone, roads, etc. The authorities deliberately did not want to work on it,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Puljic said when Pope Francis announced his plans to visit, “world leaders started to be interested in Bosnia-Herzegovina once again, seeking solutions how to make this county functional.”

When asked about the role of the Church and religion in rebuilding Bosnia’s future, the cardinal said, “The future of this county — the future to build a normal state — depends on the world leaders.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina “never managed to establish a state by itself. The world powers always did it before in history.”

It is not the Church’s mission to help build a nation-state, but the Church “can support the establishing of a just peace and just society where all have equal rights,” he said.