Bosnia-Herzegovina is finalizing preparations for the visit of Pope Francis to the capital, Sarajevo, on June 6. About 60,000 people are expected to attend a Mass at the Sarajevo stadium, and thousands more are expected to flood the city during his visit. Hopes are high that Pope Francis will inspire a sense of unity in a country that is still recovering from a three-year ethnic war that ended two decades ago.
A large wooden cross bearing bullet and shrapnel damage will be at the center of the altar during the Mass. The cross was damaged in 1993 when Bosnian Muslim troops overran the small Croat Catholic village of Dezevice in central Bosnia.
"There are 32 shrapnel holes and bullet holes in it, so this cross really symbolizes suffering. But after this suffering there was resurrection, in which we were saved," said Marko Skaba, a priest from the Stup neighborhood of Sarajevo.
The Bosnian war officially ended in 1995, but ethnic tensions among local Serbs, Croats and Muslims continue to simmer.
"We are at the crossroads of cultures. If you look at numbers, we can see that Catholics are disappearing from here. During the last 20 years, their number has been divided by two, and it keeps on decreasing," said Hrvoje Sunjic, a Sarajevo resident.
Bosnian Croats, most of them Catholics, hope the pope's visit will give a boost to the Church. Others welcome the pontiff as a peacemaker.
"Everyone knows our situation, so I really hope that he will successfully direct our politicians in a positive direction," said Azra Hadziabdic, who lives in Sarajevo.
As a gesture of solidarity, a Muslim woodcarver has been chosen to make a chair that Pope Francis will sit on during the open-air Mass. A delegation of 50 officials of the local Serbian Orthodox Church will visit the pope in Sarajevo. Amid general enthusiasm about the visit, there is also awareness that the pope cannot solve the country's problems, said Balkan analyst Srecko Latal.
"His arrival will certainly be welcome and will certainly bring additional attention to the situation in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans. However, at the end of the day, it will be up to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and people of the Balkans to resolve their own internal issues and differences," said Latal.
Bosnian authorities do not expect any unrest during the pontiff's visit, but are securing the city for the possibility.