SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Pope Francis witnessed the horrors of Bosnia's fratricidal war of the 1990s and its slow process of healing Saturday during a one-day visit to Sarajevo, where he urged Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics to put the "barbarity" of the past behind them and work together for a peaceful future.
Francis received a joyous welcome from thousands of cheering Bosnians who lined his motorcade route through the mostly Muslim city of 300,000. Another 65,000 people, most of them Catholics, packed the same Sarajevo stadium where St. John Paul II presided over an emotional post-war Mass of reconciliation in 1997.
The most poignant moment of the day came when two priests and a nun recounted their experiences during the war, of having been kidnapped, tortured and starved by Muslim or Serb Orthodox Christian troops and threatened with death. In a remarkable sign of deference, Francis bowed down to one of them and asked for his blessing.
Speaking off-the-cuff, Francis told a gathering of priests and nuns in Sarajevo's cathedral that they must never forget the "cruelty" inflicted on their fellow Catholics — not to seek vengeance, but to show the power of forgiveness and the healing nature of God's love.
"In your blood, in your vocation, there is the blood of these three martyrs," a visibly moved Francis said. "Think of how much they suffered ... and live a life that is worthy of the cross of Jesus Christ."
It was a reminder of the strong faith of their ancestors in Bosnia, where Catholics are fleeing in droves for Croatia and elsewhere in Europe. Francis was expected to urge young Catholics later in the day to stay put and keep Bosnia's Catholic community alive.
Sarajevo was once known as "Europe's Jerusalem" for the peaceful coexistence of its Christians, Muslims and Jews. It became synonymous with religious enmity during the 1992-95 conflict that left 100,000 dead and displaced half the population.
Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Christian Orthodox Serbs fought a three-way war over the country's independence after Yugoslavia fell apart. A U.S.-mediated peace agreement confirmed Bosnia's independence but divided the once mixed country along ethnic lines.
Nearly every step of Francis' day was designed to show off the interfaith and interethnic harmony that had grown in the two decades since: Children dressed in traditional folk outfits representing Bosnia's three main religious confessions greeted Francis at the airport, Muslim carpenters crafted the wooden throne he sat on during Mass and a Catholic pigeon breeder provided the white pigeons that Bosnia's three presidents and Francis set free in a sign of peace at the end of their meeting.
But reminders of the devastation of war and lingering tensions were close at hand: Francis' motorcade passed by the open market where a mortar shell fired from the surrounding hills on Feb. 5, 1994 killed 68 people in one of the bloodiest single attacks of the war. After another shell landed on the market in 1995, NATO launched airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions that brought the Serbs to the negotiating table.
The area is still a market, but a wall painted red has tags with the names of the victims.
"War never again!" Francis intoned in his homily in Sarajevo's stadium, drawing applause from the crowd. He called on Bosnians to make peace every day — not just preach it — through their "actions, attitudes and acts of kindness, of fraternity, of dialogue, of mercy."
The brilliant sun shining on Saturday's Mass contrasted sharply with the unseasonable April snowstorm that pelted John Paul during his historic 1997 Mass, which marked the first time many Croats had returned to Sarajevo since the war.
"We all need peace and to receive the pope's message," said Alma Mehmedic, a 55-year-old Muslim who waited for a glimpse of Francis outside the presidential palace. "I came today to give love and receive love."
Despite the outward show of harmony, wounds still fester two decades later. Bosnia's Christian Orthodox Serbs want a breakaway state; Muslim Bosniaks want a unified country; and Roman Catholic Croats want their own autonomous region. Many Catholics with Croatian passports have simply left to find better fortunes in the European Union, escaping an unemployment rate of 43 percent.
"We are sorry to say, each day there are fewer of us," Cardinal Vinko Puljic told Francis at the end of Mass.
In a speech to Bosnia's three-member presidency, Francis called for Bosnians to oppose the "barbarity" of those who want to continue sowing division "as a pretext for further unspeakable violence." Rather, he urged Bosnians to continue working for respectful coexistence through patient, trustful dialogue.
"This will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred," he said.
The Serb chairman of Bosnia's three-member presidency, Mladen Ivanic, welcomed the pontiff by saying Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country of contrasts where "every word echoes much stronger and longer than elsewhere."
"We believe that the times of misunderstandings, intolerance and division are behind us forever, that we have learned our lessons from the past and that new times are ahead of us, times of reason, reconciliation and cooperation," he said.
Security was tight as thousands of police officers stood guard along Francis' motorcade route through the city, which was expecting an influx of an extra 100,000 people. Shops and cafes were closed and residents along the route were told not to open their windows or stand on balconies. But they lined the route in droves and Francis' open-sided car ambled slowly by.
"The pope cannot create jobs for us or improve the political situation in our country, but he can give us hope and strengthen our faith," said Stipe Turalija, a 15-year-old Bosnian Croat.
Francis had said he wants to encourage reconciliation in Bosnia, but also encourage the Catholic Croat community, which represents only about 15 percent of the population — down from more than 17 percent before the war. Muslim Bosniaks account for 40 percent and Orthodox Christian Serbs 31 percent, according to Vatican statistics.
John Paul had tried to visit Sarajevo during the war, but the trip was called off for security reasons. His willingness to even consider a trip endeared him to a city that felt abandoned and betrayed by the world — sentiments of affection that have been projected onto his successor two decades later.