Francis strives to give peace a chance in battle-worn Bosnia

If any place on earth, and certainly any place in Europe, can be said to need a “Pope Francis effect” in terms of promoting peace and healing, it’s undoubtedly Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia today is a country of 3.8 million people with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, as well

If any place on earth, and certainly any place in Europe, can be said to need a “Pope Francis effect” in terms of promoting peace and healing, it’s undoubtedly Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bosnia today is a country of 3.8 million people with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, as well as a fragile peace among Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics constantly at risk of falling apart.

That’s why Pope Francis spent Saturday in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, with the motto of his one-day visit being “Peace be with you!”

Despite the success of the US-backed 1995 Dayton Accords in ending a feral three-year civil war that left 100,000 Bosnians dead and made Sarajevo synonymous with snipers and ethnic cleansing, nobody’s under the illusion that stability will necessarily endure.

Bosnia presently is divided into a Serb Orthodox republic and a Muslim-Catholic federation, and few seem truly satisfied. Many Serbs want to secede; Muslims are seeking a unified country, which they would likely dominate; and the mostly Croat Catholic minority is demanding its own autonomous region.

Reminders of the trauma of the war years came from two priests and a nun who told Francis their stories.

The Rev. Zvonimir Matijević, carrying two canes to keep himself upright, recounted being captured by Serb forces on Palm Sunday in 1992 and beaten so severely that he needed 26 days in a hospital and six blood transfusions to survive. He still carries the scars of the heavy metal handcuffs he was forced to wear.

A Franciscan priest named Jozo Puškarić described being held in a concentration camp, beaten every day, and, when things seemed hopeless, praying earnestly for death.

Sister Ljubica Šekerija said that in 1993, she was taken prisoner by Muslims from Arab nations who had entered Bosnia to join the fight; they transported her group to a nearby village. They initially wanted her to stomp on a rosary and later demanded that she profess Islam, but she said she refused. After three days, she was released.

Yet amid the cruelty, there were also touching moments of decency. Puškarić said he survived in part because a Muslim woman smuggled food to the camp, while Šekerija said that one of the militants, embarrassed by the mistreatment of the nun, offered her a pear to keep her going.

The pontiff was obviously moved. When Matijević, in tears, finished speaking, Francis walked over, bowed deeply, kissed his hand, and asked the elderly priest to give him a blessing.

He then set aside his prepared text to speak off-the-cuff.

“These are the stories of your people, of your mothers and fathers in the faith,” Francis said, visibly emotional.

“Do not forget the martyrs,” Francis said. “You do not have the right to forget your history, not for seeking revenge, but for building peace.” He urged forgiveness and tenderness toward former enemies.

For the most part, Saturday seemed to beckon not the ebullient pontiff the world has come to know, but something akin to an Old Testament prophet.

During a Mass for more than 60,000 people, Francis said — as he has before — that the numerous armed conflicts across the earth today represent a piecemeal “Third World War.”

“Some wish to incite and foment this atmosphere [of war] deliberately, mainly those who want conflict between different cultures and societies, and those who speculate on wars for the purpose of selling arms,” the pontiff said.

“War means children, women, and the elderly in refugee camps; it means forced displacement of peoples; it means destroyed houses, streets, and factories; it means, above all, countless shattered lives,” he said. “You know this well, having experienced it here: how much suffering, how much destruction, how much pain!”

“Today, dear brothers and sisters, the cry of God’s people goes up once again from this city, the cry of all men and women of good will: War never again!”

That’s a line first uttered by Pope Paul VI at the United Nations in 1965, and repeated by pontiffs ever since.

The somber symbolism of the event was calculated to show that co-existence among the discordant factions here is possible.

At one point, the pontiff released several white pigeons from the steps of the presidential palace. He sat on a special chair crafted by local Muslim woodcarvers, and listened to a choir of Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic youth sing a song titled “Love People.” He took part in an inter-faith meeting with Muslims, Orthodox, and Jews, with speakers from each tradition calling for forgiveness and partnership.

However moving the day proved to be, many Bosnians seemed skeptical the pope’s presence would transform their situation any time soon.

“Our politicians are hopelessly unable to hear and understand Pope Francis,” said the Rev. Iko Markovic, a local Catholic priest and theologian. “They can only instrumentalize faith and God in the manner they’ve done since the beginning.”

Time will tell whether the bold cry for peace that Francis expressed on Saturday, or Markovic’s weary realism, better captures what the future has in store. In the meantime, it was striking to see a pontiff willing to put his political capital on the line to give peace a chance.

Why Africa’s bishops have a different agenda for the family synod

One of the more interesting storylines during last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family was the emergence of the African bishops as real protagonists, no longer content simply to follow the lead of their Western peers.

That’s likely to be the case again this October, when Pope Francis convenes another Vatican summit devoted to the same subject.

Last October, the Africans generally backed traditional Catholic teaching amid fractious debate over matters such as how welcoming the Church ought to be to gays and lesbians, and whether it ought to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. Most will probably follow the same line in the second round, although that’s not universally conceded and there may be surprising nuance on some particulars.

If there’s a stance that truly unites most African bishops, it’s not a “yes” or “no” on such issues. It’s rather a core conviction that they’re simply not a priority, because Africa has more urgent fish to fry.

A recent story out of Burundi makes the point.

Last week, the country’s Catholic bishops withdrew support for presidential elections that had been set for June 26, ordering priests to pull out as official observers. It was a clear signal they believed the fix was in, and the idea was to pressure President Pierre Nkurunziza either to call off his controversial bid for a third term or to ensure a level playing field for the opposition.

In part because of the bishops’ stance, the government announced on June 4 that the elections would be postponed. No new date has been set, though in theory they should take place before Nkurunziza’s term officially expires on Aug. 26.

By way of background, Burundi is a landlocked nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region. It has one of the highest population densities in the world, with more than 10 million people jammed into a space smaller than the state of Maryland. In percentage terms, it’s also the second-most Catholic country on the African continent, after Equatorial Guinea, with more than two-thirds of Burundians professing the Catholic faith.

By virtually any measure, Burundi is among the poorest and most tormented places on earth.

It has one of the lowest per-capita GDPs in the world, it was rated the least globalized of 140 nations included in a 2012 study, and the Global Hunger Index says Burundi is the hungriest nation in the world. Over the past 30 years, Burundi also has been rocked by the HIV/AIDS crisis, ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, and a massive regional conflict that many experts saw as the first world war of the 21st century.

By 2008, that war had cost an estimated 5.4 million deaths in Africa, a stunning total that’s mostly the result of disease and starvation. Some 300,000 Burundians were among the casualties, along with 687,000 refugees.

Because of the violence, Burundi’s Church has generated a bumper crop of new martyrs. They include 36 Catholic seminarians between the ages of 15 and 20, along with eight staff members at the Buta seminary, killed by Hutu rebels on April 30, 1997.

Armed with rifles, grenades, pistols, and knives, the rebels had ordered the seminarians to separate into two groups, Hutus and Tutsis, and it was obvious the Tutsis were destined to be killed. The seminarians refused to split up, and as a result they were all slaughtered, Hutu and Tutsi alike dying together.

According to Transparency International, Burundi under Nkurunziza also ranks as one of Africa’s most corrupt nations, finishing above only such chronic offenders as Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea. Observers say Nkurunziza’s rule has become increasingly authoritarian — among other things, he banned jogging in March 2014 on the pretext that it was “a cover for subversion.”

Given all of that, Burundi’s 10 Catholic prelates, led by Bishop Gervais Banshimiyubusa of Ngozi, president of the national bishops’ conference, may be forgiven for regarding much of the pre-synod discussion as a distraction from the actual challenges they face.

Nkurunziza, who describes himself as a born-again Christian, came to power in 2005, at the close of the war, and is currently seeking a third five-year term in office despite the fact that the constitution limits him to two. He argues that because his first mandate came from parliament rather than a popular election, that provision doesn’t apply. Civil unrest stirred by his bid so far has claimed more than 20 lives.

Initially the bishops backed the idea of giving Burundians the right to vote on the question, but became increasingly wary as crackdowns on opposition forces intensified. Last week, they pulled the plug.

“The Catholic Church cannot support elections that are full of shortcomings,” Banshimiyubusa said in a statement read on Catholic and state radio. “It cannot support a process which is not based on a consensus.”

Without the Church’s support in such an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, it was virtually foreordained that the elections couldn’t take place — or if they did, they’d be seen as illegitimate. For obvious reasons, the bishops were alarmed that a rigged election could spark a new cycle of violence.

In general, bishops from the developing world who bring these sorts of experiences can be expected to argue at the coming synod that discussions of the family can’t be decoupled from forces such as poverty, famine, and war, which inevitably have massive consequences for the stability of marriages, the opportunities parents can offer their children, and so on.

Ask those bishops for positions on issues such as homosexuality and divorce, and you’ll get them. Ask those same bishops to list their own priorities, however, and the conversation will quickly head in a very different direction.

In a Church in which two-thirds of its 1.2 billion people now live outside the West, getting used to a different sense of priorities is a key to Catholic life in general — and, consequently, to understanding the synod properly.

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