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Globetrotting Pope Returns to Croatia on 100th Trip Abroad

In his third visit, the pontiff calls on the nation to balance tradition and tolerance.

June 06, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

RIJEKA, Croatia — He might not bow and kiss the ground upon arrival anymore, but history's most traveled pope marked one more milestone Thursday as he launched his 100th foreign trip.

John Paul II sailed the Adriatic from the isle of Krk to reach this Croatian port, telling a predominantly Roman Catholic nation that it must adhere to a Christianity that is both tolerant and traditional if it is to secure its place in the West.

A decade after its brutal war for independence from Yugoslavia, Croatia has sought to become a full-fledged member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The pope Thursday endorsed Croatia's bid.

But, he added, "the stability and true greatness of a nation" are based on Christian values that include respect for minorities, religious freedom and defense of the family.

It was not surprising that John Paul, 83, chose Croatia as the place to mark his 100th voyage. He has visited the Balkan nation three times and cherishes its Catholic identity. The Vatican was the first state to recognize Croatia's claim of independence in 1991. Croatia's minority Serbs rebelled, and a three-way war engulfed the region, pitting Catholic Croatia against Orthodox Serbia and predominantly Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Despite a pro-Western government that came to power in Croatia three years ago, a troubling strain of the strident nationalism that fueled the war continues to fester.

The hard-line political party that took Croatia to war has made a comeback, enjoys a 25% approval rating in polls and may return to power in elections this fall.

Many Croats resent the current government's cooperation with the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, which is prosecuting Croats, Serbs and Muslims from the conflict that finally ended in November 1995.

In Croatia's turbulent past, the church and lethal nationalism often have been intertwined. But the pope, in the official welcoming ceremony Thursday in Krk, made a point of greeting Croatia's Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians as well as its 3.6 million Catholics.

"This country, like several neighboring countries, still bears painful signs of a recent past," he said. "May those who exercise civil and religious authority never tire of trying to heal the wounds caused by a cruel war and of rectifying the consequences of a totalitarian system that for all too long attempted to impose an ideology opposed to man and his dignity."

Croatian President Stipe Mesic later thanked the pope for coming and acknowledged the setbacks in building a postwar democracy.

"We remember your words on building a culture of peace, the significance of forgiveness, your appeal to forgive and seek forgiveness," Mesic said. "That which you proclaimed in past years is being achieved, although sometimes not without difficulty."

The pope flew from Rome to Krk, an ancient rock-strewn island along Croatia's jagged, verdant coast, then sailed in a catamaran about two miles to Rijeka. Military divers could be seen checking the water before the pope boarded the vessel, and a police speedboat accompanied it.

Nuns waving white streamers and children in full-skirted regional costumes greeted the pope. Church bells tolled, and hundreds of pilgrims waved and cheered at the Rijeka harbor where his boat docked. Police lined every road he traveled. At the airport, a huge banner proclaimed: "We love you, John Paul."

In October, John Paul marks his 25th year in the papacy, and it is a reign perhaps best defined by his many missions abroad, whether it was to shore up Catholicism against a rising tide of Protestant evangelism in Latin America, to apologize to the Jews in Israel, to stand against communism in the former Soviet Bloc, or to bestow sainthood on hundreds of priests and nuns.

The Vatican has been eager to celebrate the 100th trip; Radio Vaticana noted that the pope, when he finishes this five-day, five-city tour, will have traveled a total of 725,070 miles, equal to 29 trips around the world, or three to the moon.

A visit to the Serbian city of Banja Luka in Bosnia-Herzegovina is scheduled for later this month, and there have been reports that the pope was considering traveling to Mongolia, home to a tiny Catholic population. The Vatican had reportedly hoped that the trip could be used as an entree to Russia.

But Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state, on Thursday appeared to be dampening expectations about Mongolia.

Speaking to reporters aboard the pope's boat, Sodano said that such a rigorous journey may be too difficult for the ailing pontiff, especially to a community that is so small it doesn't even have a bishop.

"The problem is that it's a long way," Sodano said. "It's not like a short trip here. It also depends on the conditions of the pope. Now he's good, but according to [the advice of his doctors], the pope will decide."

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