Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

On Saturday, June 6, Pope Francis ­visited Sarajevo, the ­capital of partitioned Bosnia-Hercegovina. Although treated by international media as a typical papal tour, the event strengthened the potential of the Croat Catholic hierarchy in Bosnia to serve as agents of peace and reconciliation. This is notable in a nation torn asunder, during the 1992–95 Bosnian war, between Bosnian Muslims (also called “Bosniaks”), Bosnian Croat Catholics, and Bosnian Serbian Orthodox Christians. To an outsider, this heated and complex religious landscape is often difficult to understand.

The pope’s short stay, following visits by Pope John Paul II in 1997 and 2003, was popular with the 300,000-plus residents of the city. Sarajevo has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the 1992–95 war shattered the country and caused an influx of refugees to the Bosnian metropolis. Muslim as well as Catholic clergy and theologians welcomed Pope Francis as a beloved fellow man of God. Bosnia-Hercegovina is a country where Muslims and Catholics have more in common than might divide them, and for that reason alone the papal trip was significant, particularly given the contrast with current Muslim–­Christian strife in the Middle East. Most important, Bosnian Catholic Croats, like the Bosniak Muslims, were targeted by Serbian aggression during the 1992–95 war.

The war ended when, by a joint military offensive of the Bosniak Muslims and the army of independent Croatia, the Serbs were restricted to the Bosnian land they had grabbed. Today, the Serbs still control a secessionist Republic of Serbs (R.S.) in the territories of northern and eastern Bosnia-Hercegovina they occupied, and Bosnian Croat Catholics and Bosniak Muslims jointly administer the Federation of Bosnia-­Hercegovina in the center and south. Under the 1995 Dayton Accords, for which Bosnia has U.S. president Bill Clinton to thank, all three ethnic groups belong to a single country with its capital in Sarajevo. Yet many Serbian leaders promise their followers that the R.S. will break off and become sovereign. They have been encouraged in this ambition by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Croat Catholic loyalty to the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina is crucial to its survival and, therefore, to that of the Bosniak Muslims. The separatism of the R.S., as well as ­prior developments in Georgia and other contested lands, appears an obvious precedent for the current Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

Hercegovina, the southern region of Bosnia, remains split between zones identified with Croat, Bosniak Muslim, and Serbian authority. Unfortunately, some Croat politicians demand a separate Croat republic in Hercegovina, similar to the Serbian R.S. As Eli Tauber, a member of the Jewish community, put it to me, “The Bosnian war did not end, and the Balkans will continue to see conflict.” Were Croat Catholics in Bosnia-­Hercegovina to follow the radical course of the Bosnian Serbs, creating a third entity attached to Croatia, fighting would almost inevitably be reignited. For that reason the embrace of Pope Francis was seen as an assurance of Bosniak Muslim, no less than Croat Catholic, security.

His Holiness has made three visits to countries with large Islamic communities since his election in March 2013. The first two were to Albania, which is about 60 percent Muslim, for one day in September 2014, and to Turkey, which is 99 percent Muslim, for three days in November 2014.

Bosnia-Hercegovina is often assumed to have a Muslim majority, but it does not. Within its pre-1992 borders, when it was a Yugoslav “socialist republic,” about 45 percent of its inhabitants identified as Muslim, though the most common style of observance was and remains markedly secular. For Bosniak Muslims, Islam is cultural rather than theological. Among the rest, about 35 percent were Serbian Orthodox Christians, and 15 percent were Croat Catholics. Bosnian Croat Catholics have the option of siding with one of the two larger groups, and one might easily expect the Croat Catholics to side with the Orthodox Serbs, since both are Christian. But as common victims of the Serbian aggressors, the Croat Catholics, who also have a longer border with and more cultural features in common with the Bosniak Muslims than with the Serbs, have no choice but to ally with the Bosniak Muslims.

The visit of Pope Francis might also have had other implications: a discreet indication of desire for reconciliation with the Bosnian Serbian Orthodox (whose reaction to the trip was strictly formal, and none too warm); a low-key example of dialogue with Muslims; and a warning to Putin not to meddle too extensively in the region.

Bosniak Muslims stand between Turkey, where the Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has­ revived fundamentalist practice among the Muslims, and Albania, which under the communist dictatorship of ­Enver Hoxha and his successor Ramiz Alia—their combined rule lasted from 1944 to 1992—saw all forms of religion prohibited. With the end of Albanian communism, religion has been revived, but with few signs of fanaticism. Religious life in Albania is being restored through the ­reestablishment of schools, media, and organizations suppressed under the Hoxha regime, rather than by high-pitched preaching.

Albania also resembles Bosnia-Hercegovina in its religious diversity. Muslims make up a majority in Albania; 10 percent of its people are Roman Catholic. Muslims and Catholics in Bosnia-Hercegovina after the 1992–95 war and in Albania post-Hoxha are equally committed to maintaining harmony between the differing religious communities, as is the government of Kosovo since the end of the 1998–99 war there.

The visit of Francis to these countries reveals an agenda promoting mutual respect between communities within each nation; even in Turkey, Christians and Jews are expected to identify as Turkish. The pope’s visit had another aspect that doubtless went unperceived by most outsiders. Bosnia-­Hercegovina is located in eastern central Europe, only an hour and a half by air from Rome. The terrible brutalities of the 1992–95 conflict occurred in a Europe that claimed to have learned something from the horrors of the Holocaust and the crimes of communism. With the victims and perpetrators of the war’s atrocities identified by religion—almost half of Bosnians being Muslims, half being mutually antagonistic Christians—His Holiness could assume the role of mediator more easily and effectively than Croat Catholics inside Bosnia-Hercegovina, who are divided by their own party and personal interests.

If Bosnian Croat Catholics were naturally pleased about the papal visit and the opportunity to express their devotion, Muslims in Sarajevo were perhaps even happier, at this demonstration that they could be accepted as Europeans. In the mosques and other places Muslims congregate, some expressed fear of Wahhabi fundamentalists, a small group who came to Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 1992–95 war. While the Wahhabis were of no consequence in the fighting, they married Bosnian women, gained Bosnian citizenship, and continue to cause tensions. Indeed, ordinary Muslims were concerned that the Wahhabis would use the papal visit to commit a terrorist attack. “I am afraid of the ‘beards,’” one Muslim woman told me, using the common nickname for Wahhabis. Moreover, a prominent Wahhabi, Husein Bosnić, was on trial just then in Sarajevo, charged with recruitment to fight for the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

 authorities did not stint on precautions. Streets to be used by the papal procession, and those surrounding Catholic facilities, were blocked off with police tape. A prominent notice, posted throughout the city, appealed to residents to cooperate with police in reporting suspicious individuals or objects. The authorities prohibited carrying arms, other dangerous items, and alcoholic drinks. Away from the crowds, in side streets, special police units with heavy machine guns were grouped in armored vehicles.

Publicity for the visit varied. While the official slogan of the visit was “Peace to You” (Mir Vama), posters of the pope with another interesting phrase appeared in many places, but especially among Muslims: “Peace to Us” (Mir Nama). Either one could be interpreted as a translation or reformulation of the Islamic greeting Selam aleykum. Yet both expressed the desire of Bosnian Muslims to maintain good relations with the Bosnian Croat Catholics and even to resolve, if possible, the division of the country between the Republic of Serbs and the Federation.

Croat Catholics were happy about the papal visit but subdued in their display of ethnic enthusiasm. As pointed out by the Islamic newspaper Novo Vrijeme (New Times), Croat Franciscans have enjoyed a special recognition by Muslim authorities since the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia-­Hercegovina in 1463. Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror commanded, in a special decree, that the churches and monasteries of the Franciscan order be protected by the Muslim state from any insult, attack, or appropriation of their properties. (Novo Vrijeme is published in Sarajevo by the Turkish Islamic preaching movement of Fethullah Gülen, a former Islamist ally of Erdoğan who lives in the United States and now stands in fierce opposition to Erdoğan’s administration.)

The sultan’s protection of the Bosnian Franciscans gave them a distinct role through the succeeding centuries of the country’s history, as culturally autonomous representatives of local identity. The prestige of the Catholic hierarchy and especially the Franciscans was enhanced further from 1878 to 1918, when the former Habsburg empire ruled Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the Austro-Hungarian Catholic authorities, who were tolerant toward Islam, introduced considerable progress in infrastructure, education, and commerce. The Franciscans have long expressed their desire to retain their function as a bridge between communities. Since the Bosnian war began in 1992, such a posture has been necessary. By his visit, Pope Francis reinforced it.

His Holiness arrived at Sarajevo International Airport in the morning and proceeded immediately to the Presidency of Bosnia-Hercegovina for greetings by political leaders. In his remarks to them, the pope affirmed that “Sarajevo and Bosnia-Hercegovina have a special significance for Europe and for the whole world. . . . The very architecture and layout of Sarajevo reveals visible and substantial characteristics of these different communities, each a short distance from the other—synagogues, churches, and mosques—so much so that Sarajevo has been called ‘the Jerusalem of Europe.’” He emphasized, “Bosnia-Hercegovina is indeed an integral part of Europe.”

At 11:00 a.m., after traveling through the city in the popemobile, he officiated at a Mass for justice and peace, gathering 65,000 believers in the KoŠevo stadium, where his predecessor, St. John Paul II, celebrated mass in 1997. The message of Francis was insistent: there should be no more war. At the mass, he was presented a key to the city of Sarajevo by Mayor Ivo Komšić, who represents the formerly communist Social Democrats. At least 100,000 pilgrims had come to Bosnia-Hercegovina for the papal visit, waving flags from countries as diverse as Ukraine, nearby Macedonia, and China. Numerous Catholic nuns were seen in the streets, an ­unusual sight in normal times.

His Holiness attended an interfaith meeting with Cardinal Vinko Puljić, joined by Husein Kavazović, a well-known moderate and the local head of the Islamic community; Serbian Orthodox bishop Grigorije, and Jakob Finci as head of the small Bosnian Jewish remnant. The four men constitute the Bosnian Interreligious Council. The interfaith session was conducted at the monastery of the Holy Cross in Kovačići in Sarajevo, the local center of the Franciscan Province of Bosna Srebrena.

The rest of Francis’s day was dedicated to a visit to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, a meeting with Bosnian Catholic bishops at the apostolic nunciature, and an encounter with young believers at the archdiocesan pastoral center for youth, named for Pope John Paul II. His Holiness returned to Rome in the evening.

Many Muslims focused on selling religious souvenirs to the Catholic pilgrims, with portraits of His Holiness on badges, keyrings, and banners. White-and-yellow Vatican flags were flown throughout the Muslim-majority city. The Baščaršija, the old Ottoman marketplace at the center of town, was as lively as ever on a peacetime Saturday.

The visit by His Holiness ­coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered and buried in mass graves by Serbian terrorists in eastern Bosnia. This may have been pure coincidence, but at the moment of the papal trip, Bosniak Muslim media were filled with reports of recent exhumation of corpses and their reburial in Muslim cemeteries. The contrast between the horror of Srebrenica and the papal call for peace could not have been more dramatic.

Pope Francis seems to understand the delicacy of the Bosnian religious situation. Interfaith relations, especially between Serbian Orthodox believers on one side and Bosniak Muslims and Croat Catholics on the other, remain a sensitive matter, with bitter memories, ethnic mistrust, and religious disagreements never far from people’s minds. And so the pope’s peace message was intentionally broad, and Croat Catholics were subdued in their political response to the visit, letting the pope’s words speak for them. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, reconciliation and the avoidance of new bloodshed was the overriding—and effective—papal message.   

Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He is author of Sarajevo Rose: A Balkan Jewish Notebook (2005) and Kosovo: Background to a War (2000).

Image by Michał Huniewicz licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.