Pope Francis will find a country still suffering from ethnic and religious suspicion when he visits Bosnia and Herzegovina this weekend, but some hope that his visit will help encourage unity. “Catholics have an obligation to be reaching out to their fellow countrymen,” Marc D’Silva, Catholic Relief Services’ representative to the country, told CNA June 3. Francis will visit Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital of Sarajevo on Saturday, June 6 and say Mass at the city’s Olympic stadium. At a smaller ecumenical gathering, he will also meet with about 50 leaders of different religions, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish. The visit comes 20 years after the end of the three-year Bosnian War that killed around 100,000 people and displaced a million more. Its effects exist to this day. Although ethnic and religious violence tapered off after the peace treaty of 1995-96, deep cultural divides are enduring. D’Silva said the divisions of the war have been “frozen into place,” with whole communities sharing the same ethnicity and religion and harboring a deep suspicion of their countrymen. This has created a stagnant economy, with the official unemployment rate at 46 percent. Businesses are reluctant to invest in a divided country with no single economic plan. About 700,000 people live in poverty there, according to CRS. Many politicians have profited from the polarization and there are few public figures who can transcend the ethnic and religious divides and set an example for the rest of the country. Many young people are educated their whole lives through their own ethnic and religious points-of-view, and so do not understand the historic struggles of their fellow citizens of other faiths. A typical Croat high school graduate, for example, would have only heard how the predominantly Catholic Croats suffered in the war but would not know about how Muslims suffered. D’Silva hoped that Pope Francis will spur everyone, especially Catholics, to overcome their differences and begin building a united country. He said that the papal visit is an opportunity to send a “powerful message” to Catholics, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Jews that there is “an influential person” who will speak to everybody. The Pope has already sent a video message to the people of the country emphasizing the motto of his upcoming trip: “Peace be with you.” “With the help of God I come among you to confirm the faith of Catholics, to support ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, and especially to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country,” he said. However, plenty of work will still remains to rebuild the country after Francis’ visit. Ultimately, D’Silva said, it’s “up to us” to take action. There “will always be enough examples” of people working to overcome their differences, he said. CRS is already doing this work in their partnership with Caritas International. It has started joint community projects where youth from two communities come together to do service projects in each community. The charities are also working to fight human trafficking, which is a particular problem in the country since the war in the mid-1990s undermined the legal structure needed to fight it. Further social discord will come at a steep price, D’Silva added. If the country won’t unite, it will not join the European Union and will continue to suffer economic malaise. This could also set the stage for more conflict in the future.
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