VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis has promised to be a “messenger of peace” during his day trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina this Saturday (June 6), but despite excitement in the country there are doubts the visit will have a lasting impact.
When the pope touches down in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo, it will have been nearly two decades since a bloody three-year conflict came to an end.
But a war that left an estimated 100,000 people dead will have a significant influence on the pope’s visit, which carries a “Peace be with you” motto that comes complete with a dove-and-olive-branch logo.
Francis has continued the theme, describing himself as a “messenger of peace” in a video message released earlier this week.
“With the help of God I come among you to confirm the faith of Catholics, to support ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and especially to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country,” the pope said.
After the short flight to Sarajevo, the pontiff is to meet with President Bakir Izetbegović, then celebrate Mass at the city’s Olympic stadium. The pope’s whistle-stop tour also includes a lunch with bishops, an interreligious meeting and a trip to a youth center.
Excitement over the visit has not been confined to the country’s relatively small Catholic community, which makes up just 11.5 percent of the population. Posters anticipating the pope’s arrival can be seen across Sarajevo; outside the city a Muslim woodcarver has even made a chair for the pope.
But despite widespread enthusiasm at the papal trip — the first to Bosnia-Herzegovina since John Paul II’s last visit in 2003 — there is speculation over whether it can bring lasting change to the country.
Adis Merdzanovic, an academic researching Bosnia-Herzegovina at the University of Oxford, said Francis’ focus on interreligious dialogue disregards more urgent issues.
“There is peaceful coexistence. Bosnia’s problems are not religious, they’re socio-economic and above all political,” he said. “The pope’s visit cannot have such a large effect on the major issues.”
If the pope discusses politics on Saturday, he could draw international attention to governance in Sarajevo, Merdzanovic said, similar to the way anti-government protests did last year.
But even though the pope is well-liked in the country, “politics is a tough line for him to take,” Merdzanovic said.
Even so, the pope’s visit is eagerly awaited in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said Marc D’Silva, Catholic Relief Services’ representative in Sarajevo.
“People here are very excited and understand he’s coming for everyone,” he said. “Even though there hasn’t been a continuation of violence, there’s been a lot of vested interest to inhibit rebuilding the bridges.”
D’Silva said the pope’s message of religious dialogue was still relevant and necessary to continue strengthening ties between communities.
“Very influential leaders can make a lot of difference in deciding whether people are going to fight for peace in their country. We’ll be looking for those messages and reminding people of them in the months and years to come,” he said.
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