Pope heads to Bosnia as 'messenger of peace'

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis said he will dedicate his one-day visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina to encouraging a minority Catholic community in the faith, fostering ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and calling for peace and harmony after the devastations of war.

He said he would be coming "as a brother messenger of peace to express to everyone - everyone - my esteem and friendship. I would like to proclaim to each person, each family, each community, God's mercy, tenderness and love."

The pope made his comments in a brief recorded video message sent to the Balkan nation ahead of his trip to the capital of Sarajevo June 6.

Twenty years after the end of a three-year conflict of war and ethnic cleansing, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still largely divided along ethnic lines. Bosnians make up 48 percent of the country's nearly 4 million people, while Serbs make up 37 percent and Croats 14 percent. About 40 percent of all citizens are Muslim, 31 percent Orthodox and 15 percent Catholic.

In his video message, released June 2, Pope Francis said the aim of the trip was to confirm the nation's Catholics in the faith, "support ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and above all to encourage the peaceful coexistence in your country."

He said he hoped his visit would have a positive impact on society and on the Catholic community, which has seen the loss of about half of its members since the war because of mass immigration following the conflict and lingering economic difficulties, as well as because of declining birthrates.

While expressing his "affection and my strong spiritual closeness" to all the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the pope encouraged its Catholics "to be at the side of your fellow citizens as witnesses of faith and God's love, working for a society that journeys toward peace in harmony and mutual collaboration."

It will be Pope Francis' eighth trip abroad and the 11th country he has visited outside of Italy since his election in 2013.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015