Pope Francis has arrived in Sarajevo on a one-day visit aimed at bolstering reconciliation between the country’s Serb, Croat and Muslim communities.
Francis’s plane landed in Sarajevo at 07:00 GMT on Saturday, a largely Muslim city of 300,000 people that was once known as “Europe’s Jerusalem” for its interfaith harmony among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
However, it became synonymous with religious enmity during the 1992-95 conflict that left 100,000 dead and displaced half of the population.
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Sarajevo, said Francis already met the three presidents of Bosnia and was due to hold talks with youth from three religions.
“The choir is primarily a Serb Orthodox choir and is singing to a Catholic and primarily Croat congregation,” he said.
“The throne that he is going to sit on is made for him by a Muslim carpenter from north of Sarajevo, he offered it to him as a gesture of peace and reconciliation and the catholic church gladly accepted the offer.”
About 100,000 people were expected to come from across the region to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to greet Francis.
In a speech to Bosnia’s three-member presidency, the pope urged Bosnia’s Muslims, Orthodox believers and Catholics to put the “deep wounds” of their past behind them and work together for a peaceful future.
Francis called on 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 peace and 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.
Before his arrival, Francis had said he was coming to Bosnia to support its post-war process of reconciliation, but to also encourage the tiny Catholic Croat community, which represents only about 15 percent of the population.
Muslim Bosnians account for 40 percent and Orthodox Christian Serbs 31 percent, according to Vatican statistics.
“I encourage you Catholics to stand beside your countrymen as witnesses to your faith and God’s love, working for a society that walks towards peace, coexistence and collaboration,” Francis said in a video message earlier this week.
On the eve of his visit, Catholics across Bosnia dropped to their knees at an agreed time on Friday evening during candle-lit vigils to pray for all those around the world who are persecuted for their faith.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, noted that the Catholic population had shrunk across Bosnia in part because of the high unemployment rate – currently 43 percent – with youth unemployment at 67 percent.
Scores of Catholics, who hold Croatian passports, have left to find work in the European Union.