By Philip Pullella and Daria Sito-Sucic
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Pope Francis urged Bosnians to seek lasting ethnic and religious harmony on Saturday, 20 years after the former Yugoslav republic emerged from war, saying even the deepest wounds can be healed.
The bells of churches rang out on the pope's arrival at the airport of Sarajevo, once a symbol of the ethnic and religious diversity of socialist Yugoslavia.
Underscoring the security concerns for the pope, three military helicopters with doors open and sharpshooters at the ready circled low over the tarmac as his plane landed.
Last month a Muslim gunman attacked a police station in eastern Bosnia, killing one police officer and wounding two before he was shot dead.
At the airport, the pope shook hands with each of some 150 children dressed in traditional costumes of all ethnic groups.
The pope told reporters on his plane he was making the trip to pay tribute to those who had suffered from the 1992-1995 war that killed 100,000 people.
"Now it (Sarajevo) is on a beautiful path of peace. I am making this trip to talk about this," he said.
The country remains hamstrung by the legacy of the conflict, divided along ethnic and religious lines and trailing its ex-Yugoslav peers on the road to Western integration.
Francis, making the third visit by a pope to Bosnia, arrived days after the entry into force of a landmark EU agreement on closer ties with Bosnia, part of a new Western initiative to encourage political and economic change.
EXAMPLE FOR WORLD
Peace initiatives between Bosnia's Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks showed "such cooperation among varying ethnic groups and religions in view of the common good is possible," Francis said.
"Even the deepest wounds can be healed by purifying memories and firmly anchoring hopes in the future."
Bosnians, too, were hopeful.
"If nothing else, the pope's message can influence common people who could not choose whether they were born Serb, Bosniak or Croat, but can choose if they will be good or bad people," said Filip Marsic, a Catholic priest from the northern town of Derventa who was in Sarajevo to attend the Mass.
"If they choose the latter, perhaps Bosnia has a future in spite of politics."
Catholics, the vast majority ethnic Croats, account for about 15 percent of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people.
They share power with Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs in an unwieldy system of ethnic quotas laid down by a U.S.-brokered peace deal in 1995 and plagued by nationalist politicking.
While Bosniaks would like a more centralized and stronger state, Serb leaders in their own autonomous region are growing bolder in threats to secede. Croat nationalists, too, are calling for the creation of their own entity within Bosnia, arguing that their rights are under threat.
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela; Writing by Matt Robinson and Philip Pullella; editing by Ralph Boulton)