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Pope Takes Message to the Balkans

The pontiff aims to heal religious divisions between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox and to bolster Europe's Christian identity.

June 21, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — When Pope John Paul II travels Sunday to the Balkans for the second time in as many weeks, he will press a message that has become fundamental to the waning years of his papacy: affirming the Christian identity of Europe.

It is a two-track mission for the pope.

In countries such as Croatia, where the pope completed a five-day tour earlier this month, John Paul urges the Roman Catholic faithful to hold true to their religious roots. As Croatia -- and other formerly communist countries -- join the European Union, he says, they should carry with them their faith and avoid the West's secularist temptations.

And in countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the pope will hold Mass on Sunday, he hopes to promote the healing of a millennium-old schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as a way to further religious unity.

Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, along with predominantly Muslim Bosnians, fought a savage war in the first half of the last decade as the Yugoslav federation broke apart largely along ethnic lines.

The wounds of that conflict, as the pope has repeatedly said, remain raw.

The Catholicism of Croatia that the pontiff blesses has historically been intertwined with the violent, radical nationalism that helped fuel the war and to this day riles the Serbs.

Similarly, the Serbs' Christianity was often a battle cry rallying a "Greater Serbia" in which neither Catholics nor Muslims were welcome.

Serbs are already protesting the scheduled arrival of the pope Sunday in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, the Serbian mini-state within Bosnia. During the war, Banja Luka was a place where mosques and Catholic churches were burned or destroyed by Serbs, and where tens of thousands of Serbian refugees sought haven after being driven violently from their Croatian homes.

The element of the pope's visit that most angers Serbs, however, relates to an earlier war.

John Paul is going to beatify Ivan Merz, an early 20th century Bosnian Croat layman who was born in Banja Luka. The Mass will be performed in a Franciscan monastery on the outskirts of the city that Serbs say was the site of a World War II atrocity in which pro-Nazi Croats massacred nearly 3,000 Serbs, many of them children.

Croatia was a puppet state of Nazi Germany in World War II, and its henchman killed masses of Serbs, Jews and opposition Croats.

To this day, many Serbs accuse nationalist Catholic priests of encouraging some of the slaughter.

In the more recent war, Serbs burned the monastery; today, only five friars and two nuns work there. The parish's Catholic population has shrunk from 5,500 to 380.

Police in Banja Luka on Friday reported the arrest of an undisclosed number of people who they accused of "endangering" the pope's visit. Among those detained was a local restaurateur who allegedly printed T-shirts with an image of the pope, his face crossed out with an X.

Web sites have cropped up protesting the pope's visit. And posters of John Paul in Banja Luka were defaced with a four-S graffito that represents a nationalistic Serbian slogan: Only Unity will Save the Serbs.

In that climate, the pope will try to preach reconciliation and peace.

A handful of Serbian Orthodox priests attended his events in Croatia, and much was made of their appearance, with John Paul publicly greeting "our brothers and sisters who share with us faith in Jesus, the son of God and the one savior of the world."

As of a few days ago, however, it had still not been decided what level of Orthodox delegation will meet with the pope in Banja Luka. Patriarch Pavle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is not expected to be present.

"There is still a lot of 11th century thinking among the [Orthodox] bishops," Mirko Djordjevic, a historian and sociologist of religion, said in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. "Most [Orthodox] bishops are still very suspicious."

John Paul, who is 83 and ailing but making his 101st foreign trip this weekend, sees uniting West and East as a way to cement the Christian character of Europe.

Another way is to promote the inclusion in the European Union of Catholic countries that were communist or belonged to the Soviet Bloc, in the hopes that their more traditional Catholicism will spread.

In every appearance in Croatia two weeks ago, he emphasized to his audiences that they marry in the church, raise children in the church and live the kind of faith-filled lives that are less in evidence in the rest of Western Europe.

"The pope sees countries like Croatia and other former members of the Soviet Bloc as a tonic that should be injected into secular Western European culture," said John L. Allen Jr., a correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter who has written several books on the pope. "The fear is that the reverse is happening. Instead of these countries converting Europe, Europe is converting them."


Special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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