Pope visits Croatia, urges return of faith as unifying force in Balkans


ZAGREB, Croatia -- Pope John Paul II climaxed his first visit to the former Yugoslavian federation yesterday amid the adulation of hundreds of thousands of followers and sobering new calls for Balkan peace.

The 74-year-old pontiff was strong-voiced at a three-hour Mass in this capital of predominantly Roman Catholic Croatia, but he maneuvered with difficulty on a right leg broken in April.

"The leg troubles him, but his spirits are very high," said the Rev. Roberto Tucci, a senior papal aide.

An elevator at the back of a three-story papal altar at the racetrack here spared the pontiff the steep 27-step climb, and aides helped him in and out of cars.

But the strain of the journey showed on his face. "He doesn't look good at all," one photographer said.

The pope looked very good, by contrast, to jubilant Croats who applauded every step of the first pope to visit a city to which Christianity came 900 years ago. Organizers estimated the racetrack crowd at between 500,000 and 750,000.

Addressing them, the green-robed pontiff made the most of his stay in the only part of the former Yugoslavian federation he has been able to visit; the pope is not welcome among Serbian leaders in Belgrade; and security concerns forced him to scrap last week's scheduled visit to Sarajevo, the capital of war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The pope won his biggest applause when he drew an analogy between religious faith and the Sava River, which bisects Zagreb.

"Faith in this region, today so sorely tried, must return to be a unifying and beneficial force like the rivers that flow through it. I am thinking of the River Sava, which, beginning in Slovenia, flows through your country across the borders of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina through Serbian land, into the Danube. . . . Two rivers that meet are called to unite many peoples, just as the two expressions of Christianity must do -- Western and Eastern -- that have always coexisted in these lands," the pope said.

Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics and Muslims have dwelled together in the Balkans for a millennium, he noted, adding, "It is not lawful to attribute to religion the phenomenon of nationalistic intolerance which is raging in this region."

Representatives of Croatia's Muslim minority attended the papal Mass yesterday, and a leader of Zagreb's small Jewish community welcomed the pope in a brief address to the crowd. But the Serbian Orthodox Church declined invitations to the Mass, Vatican officials said. Serbian spokesmen have publicly accused the Vatican of siding with Croatia.

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