SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Pope Francis heard about the horrors of Bosnia's fratricidal war of the 1990s and its slow process of healing Saturday as he visited Sarajevo to urge Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics to put the "barbarity" of the past behind them and work together for a peaceful future.
Thousands of cheering Bosnians gave Francis a joyous welcome, lining his motorcade route through the mostly Muslim city of 300,000. Another 65,000 people, most of them Catholics, packed the same Sarajevo stadium where St. John Paul II presided over an emotional post-war Mass of reconciliation in 1997.
Francis said he was coming to Sarajevo for a daylong trip to encourage the process of peace and reconciliation and show his support for Bosnia's tiny Catholic community. With Croat passports in hand, many Catholics have fled high unemployment in Bosnia to search for better opportunities in the European Union.
The most poignant moment of the day came when two Catholic priests and a nun told Francis of their experiences during the war, of having been kidnapped, tortured and starved by Muslim or Serb Orthodox Christian troops and threatened with death. Moved by the testimony, Francis bowed down to one of them and asked for his blessing.
Speaking off-the-cuff, Francis told the gathering of priests and nuns in Sarajevo's cathedral that they must never forget the "cruelty" inflicted on their fellow Catholics — not to seek vengeance, but to show the power of forgiveness.
"In your blood, in your vocation, there is the blood of these three martyrs," a visibly moved Francis said. "Think of how much they suffered ... and live a life that is worthy of the cross of Jesus Christ."
It was a reminder to today's Catholics of the strong faith of their ancestors — and a bid to encourage them to stay put to keep Bosnia's Catholic community alive.
Sarajevo was once known as "Europe's Jerusalem" for the peaceful coexistence of its Christians, Muslims and Jews. It became synonymous with religious enmity during the 1992-95 conflict that left 100,000 dead and displaced half the population.
Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Christian Orthodox Serbs fought a three-way war over the country's independence after Yugoslavia fell apart. A U.S.-mediated peace agreement confirmed Bosnia's independence but divided the once mixed country along ethnic lines.
Nearly every step of Francis' day was designed to show off the interfaith and interethnic harmony that had grown in the two decades since: Muslim carpenters crafted the wooden throne Francis sat on during Mass. A Catholic pigeon breeder provided the white pigeons that Bosnia's three presidents and Francis set free in a sign of peace at the end of their meeting. And a Muslim-Christian Orthodox children's choir from Srebrenica — scene of Europe's worst massacre since World War II — serenaded Francis with a song about love at the end of his busy day.
"We all need peace and to receive the pope's message," said Alma Mehmedic, a 55-year-old Muslim who waited for a glimpse of Francis outside the presidential palace. "I came today to give love and receive love."
But reminders of the devastation of war and lingering tensions were close at hand: Before hearing of the testimonies of the priests and nuns, Francis' motorcade passed by the open market where a mortar shell fired from the surrounding hills on Feb. 5, 1994 killed 68 people in one of the bloodiest single attacks of the war. After another shell landed on the market in 1995, NATO launched airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions that brought the Serbs to the negotiating table.
The area is still a market, but a wall painted red has tags with the names of the victims.
"War never again!" Francis intoned in his homily in Sarajevo's stadium, drawing applause from the crowd. He called on Bosnians to make peace every day — not just preach it — through their "actions, attitudes and acts of kindness, of fraternity, of dialogue, of mercy."
"Mir vama!" (Peace be with you!) Francis repeated again and again as the day wore on. "Make peace. Work for peace. All together, so that this can be a country of peace."
Despite the outward show of harmony, wounds still fester two decades after the war ended. Bosnia's Christian Orthodox Serbs want a breakaway state; Muslim Bosniaks want a unified country; and Roman Catholic Croats want their own autonomous region. Catholics represent only about 15 percent of the population — down from more than 17 percent before the war. Muslim Bosniaks account for 40 percent and Orthodox Christian Serbs 31 percent, according to Vatican statistics.
In a speech to Bosnia's three-member presidency, Francis called for Bosnians to oppose the "barbarity" of those who want to continue sowing division "as a pretext for further unspeakable violence." Rather, he urged Bosnians to continue working for respectful coexistence through patient, trustful dialogue.
"This will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred," he said.
The Serb chairman of Bosnia's three-member presidency, Mladen Ivanic, welcomed the pontiff by saying Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country of contrasts where "every word echoes much stronger and longer than elsewhere."
"We believe that the times of misunderstandings, intolerance and division are behind us forever, that we have learned our lessons from the past and that new times are ahead of us, times of reason, reconciliation and cooperation," he said.
Security was tight as thousands of police officers stood guard along Francis' motorcade route through the city, which was expecting an influx of an extra 100,000 people. Shops and cafes were closed and residents along the route were told not to open their windows or stand on balconies. But they lined the route in droves and Francis' open-sided car ambled slowly by.
"The pope cannot create jobs for us or improve the political situation in our country, but he can give us hope and strengthen our faith," said Stipe Turalija, a 15-year-old Bosnian Croat.
John Paul had tried to visit Sarajevo during the war, but the trip was called off for security reasons. His willingness to even consider a trip endeared him to a city that felt abandoned and betrayed by the world — sentiments of affection that have been projected onto his successor two decades later.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.
Follow Aida Cerkez at www.twitter.com/acerkez and Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield