Capital Sarajevo
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 387
Mobile Codes 61,62,63
ccTLD .ba
Currency Bosnian Convertible Mark (1EUR = 1,96 BAM)
Land Area 51,129 sq km
Population 4 million
Language Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian
Major Religion Islam, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity

Pope Francis’ June 2015 Visit to Bosnia: the Five Key Issues editor’s note: for full coverage of the context of the papal visit to Bosnia in the context of Holy See diplomacy, read our new e-book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans (also available in Italian as Le Sfide del Vaticano nei Balcani). See also our dedicated Vatican microsite for more coverage.

By Chris Deliso


In early February, reported that Pope Francis would visit Bosnia on 6 June. There are several key factors to watch regarding this special event, in a year where the pope’s third Balkan visit within a nine-month period is overshadowed by his anticipated trips to Cuba and the US later this year.

The major significance of the impending visit, as we have analyzed in depth in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, is that the Holy See still has great interests in the region. As said, this will be the third Balkan state that Pope Francis is visiting within a nine-month period (following Albania in Sept. 2014 and Turkey in Nov. 2014).

This highly unusual conjunction of events has to do with both its long-term goals in the region, and with certain factors of timing. For example, the pope was motivated to visit Turkey partly because of the worsening plight of Christians in the Middle East due to ISIS, but he had to do so well before the Armenian genocide centennial in April 2015, as his position on the issue has angered Turks.

Following a detailed description of the pope’s Bosnia itinerary, we present a short overview of the major issues that will affect the papal visit, including security, ecumenicalism and pastoralism, pilgrimage sites and others.


The itinerary for the 11-hour visit was described on April 14th by the Catholic Herald, among others. Pope Francis and his entourage will depart at 7.30am on June 6 from Rome’s Fiumicino airport, arriving at 9am in Sarajevo. A 9.30am welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace will be followed at 10.10am by a meeting with government leaders there, followed by a speech from the pope.

Then, at 11am Mass will be held at Sarajevo’s Kosevo stadium, followed by a 1.15pm luncheon with the bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the apostolic nunciature. At 4.20pm, Francis will meet with priests, seminarians and others in the Sarajevo cathedral, where he will deliver another speech.

At 5.30pm, Francis is set to meet with “leaders and members of other religions and other Christian denominations at the Franciscan International Student Center,” and give another speech. One hour later, he will meet with young people at the John Paul II Youth Center diocesan center, and deliver another address. Finally, a 7.45pm farewell ceremony will be held at Sarajevo airport, getting the pope back on Italian soil by 9.20pm.

Chosen Context

Catholic media summaries reflect similar coverage – and subsequent Vatican rhetoric – concerning the Albania visit of 2014. At that time, the Holy See contextualized the pope’s visit in reference to the country’s Cold War, atheist past. Similarly, the Vatican will define the pope’s visit to Bosnia along the lines of that country’s “recent” war- which ended 20 years ago.

The Catholic Herald described Bosnia thus as “struggling to rebuild itself after a devastating war marked by ethnic cleansing,” and also “still largely divided along ethnic lines.” In February, the pope described the upcoming Bosnia trip as “an encouragement for the Catholic faithful, give rise to the development of the good and contribute to strengthening fraternity, peace, interreligious dialogue and friendship.” Indeed, the Franciscan event is expected to have an inter-religious character owing to its population of Muslims, Orthodox and (15 percent) Catholics.

Internal Clerical Issues: The Trip as a Papal Stamp of Approval for Cardinal Puljić

The Bosnia visit comes as yet another honor for Cardinal Vinko Puljić, who has been the most powerful Balkan Catholic leader since being appointed a cardinal (by Pope John Paul II) in 1994, at the age of only 49. Puljić, who is also Bosnia’s main archbishop, has enjoyed influence in the highest levels of the Holy See for many years, ensuring that the difficulties facing Bosnia’s Catholics are heard.

In recent years, Puljić has complained of the difficulties Catholics are facing from poverty, declining mass attendance, discrimination from Serbs and danger from radical Islamists in the country. Although neighboring Croatia is the bulwark of Balkan Catholicism, Puljić seems to pull more weight with the Holy See than does the Croatian clergy, which as reported earlier has undergone a ‘cleaning-out’ of old-line nationalists in recent years under Vatican supervision.

Therefore, the very fact that the pope is visiting Bosnia and not Croatia sends a message that Cardinal Puljić remains the Vatican’s most trusted man in the Balkans.

Security Concerns Surrounding the Visit

Most papal pundits already have shifted their attention to the autumn visits to Cuba and the United States. But these are presuming, though the Vatican is not saying it, that Francis survives Bosnia. For if there is any place where an assassination could occur in 2015, Bosnia would be it.

The pope’s best defensive asset it time: a carefully-arranged, 11-hour trip does not leave much opportunity for terrorists. However, everyone knows that Bosnia hosts radical Islamists, and police sweeps in the last year in several Balkan countries, Italy and Austria have shown there is a significant threat- not even to mention ISIS’ headline-grabbing threat against the Vatican last year.

Interestingly, the international police operations in the past year show a clear pattern of sweeps directly preceding papal visits to the Balkans. Of course, it cannot be proven that these operations were in response to any specific threat against the pope, but it is clear that the Vatican likes to err on the side of caution.

Despite having a small Gendarmerie (led by former Italian intelligence officer Domenico Giani), the Vatican has unsurpassed field intelligence owing to its clerical and charity presence in much of the world, including the Balkans. The Vatican cooperates on fighting the terrorist threat with Interpol and other international bodies. Within Italy, it liaises with a central directorate of the national police (Direzione Centrale della Polizia di Prevenzione), to which the territorial DIGOS branches report. The Director of this directorate is also the chairman of the Comitato di Analisi Strategica Antiterrorismo- a joint committee that includes all counter-terrorism bodies in the state institutions.

While the brevity of the pope’s Bosnia trip would make it difficult for aspiring terrorists, some risks remain. The chief one would be a shoulder-fired rocket attack against the papal plane, which could be accomplished from a significant distance. The urban character of the pope’s visit also will mean authorities must prepare for potential IEDs and clear crowded streets and entranceways. If everything goes according to plan and ends safely, the Bosnian authorities will no doubt take credit and use it as an example to promote theirs as a safe country.

Tending to the Bosnian Clergy and Flock

Along with being a reaffirmation of Cardinal Puljić’ and his leadership, the papal visit will also shore up morale among a local clergy and Catholic population that feels increasingly isolated. The entrance into the EU of Croatia – which provides passports to many Bosnian Croats – has led to emigration, while the centralizing impulses of the Muslim Bosniaks has alarmed some local clerics. Cardinal Puljić, who was born in today’s Republika Srpska, has also long complained about perceived discrimination against Catholic Croats there.

Pope Francis is thus expected to try and reinvigorate the youth participation in the Catholic Church while giving clerics new hope that theirs is not a lost cause. In recent years, as Bosnia has come under increasing pressure to find a workable political solution to secure its future, the Catholic population has arguably been squeezed the most. Talk of forming a separate, ‘third entity’ for the Croats is not supported by Zagreb and it is up to non-political entities like the Vatican to provide additional support to the public. They do this through NGOs and charities, and it is likely that Pope Francis will use the opportunity to highlight the work of these bodies.

Avoiding Medjugorje

While many Catholic believers had hoped the pope would use his visit to give a ringing endorsement to the validity of the Marian shrine of Medjugorje, experts are not holding their breath. Vatican expert Edward Pentin noted recently that “some believe Pope Francis has a low opinion of the frequent apparitions and refer to comments he made in 2013, when he said the Virgin Mary ‘is not a postmaster, sending messages every day.’ However, to date, the Pope has never made any public statements on the issue.”

As we have discussed in detail in our new book, the Medjugorje issue is very important because it is controversial- as well as lucrative for local and foreign tour operators who have brought pilgrims from far and wide since the early 1980’s. At a time when the Catholic Church is lacking significant youth support in Europe, this Bosnian rural shrine is one place that still draws large crowds. Representing as it does a vital economic vehicle for hard-pressed locals, the Vatican cannot afford to denounce it completely as a fraud.

Thus, the findings of the private report commissioned by the pope (and given to him in 2014) will probably not be revealed on the trip. We expect that when they are released, it will be a reaffirmation of the previous Vativan compromise policy, that the validity of the site is a ‘matter of personal belief.’

Finally, it is interesting to note in the context of ‘avoiding Medjugorje’ that this determination might help explain why Pope Francis is making a one-day visit to the country. If he were to stay overnight, the pressure to visit other sites (like Medjugorje) would have been greater. It could also have been seen as logical for the pope to make a combined trip to Bosnia and Croatia, but the same problem might be encountered. In the end, there is also the simple truth: hey, the pope is a busy guy.

Negotiating Difficult Anniversaries

The timing of the current visit is very interesting. Different Catholic news reports have made the somewhat macabre connection of the visit to Sarajevo with the near-centennial of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand- the city’s most famous event for most foreigners.

However, the pope’s support for the Armenian side in the April 24 2015 genocide commemoration enraged Turks, as mentioned above. It will only up the ante for Turkish (and other Muslim) leaders to commemorate, later this summer, the 20th anniversary of the proclaimed ‘Srebrenica genocide’ from the war, when ‘up to 8,000 Bosniaks were killed by Serb paramilitaries in July 1995. Unlike the Turks, Serbia’s politicians have tended to just go with the flow of established Western public opinion, and hardly contested it with the same lobbying vigor as has Turkey with the Armenian case. RS President Dodik would like an international committee to decide on Srebrenica.

But the proximity of the two anniversaries was already enlivened by interventions from the Turkish media, making just an equivalence, involving a group called ‘mothers of Srebrenica’ in the discourse at the time of Armenian genocide commemorations. Soon after, Turkey discussed both Srebrenica and the killings of Azeris during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the same way. This is certain to be just a warm-up for Turkish, and other Muslim countries’, activism in July, when the media will be dominated briefly by the anniversary. No doubt the Turkish leadership will be extra fired up due to its anger over the latest Armenian commemoration, resulting in a larger-than-usual Bosnia event.

Although the genocide comparison between a few thousand deaths and 1.5 million is tenuous at best, these examples show that for Turkey (and others in not only the Muslim world) disagree. Pope Francis is thus certain to be sensitive to the Srebrenica issue. This will be savvy politics, as he will want to show he feels compassion for Muslim suffering ahead of commemorations in which Muslim (and Western) leaders will surpass any advocacy the pope could offer. They are expected to make the issue into a symbolic spectacle that ultimately defends the 1990s Balkan interventions, and will probably find a relationship between that period and the political development of Bosnia today, and provide their advice on how to address that. Quite conceivably, the Obama administration will also take its ‘countering radical extremism’ policy on the road and find some linkages between the Yugoslav wars and fighting radicalism in the region today through ‘soft power,’ though it may not be stated overtly as such.

There is thus a unique aspect of preserving political legacies among retired Western diplomats associated with the Bosnia events, that is conspicuously absent from the case of Armenia, which happened too long ago for anyone to have a personal stake in it. But if the adage is true that ‘the Church thinks in centuries,’ we can expect Pope Francis to continue to be sensitive to all issues and how they can affect the future capabilities and presence of the Catholic Church.


Although Pope Francis has joked that he will only live for another few years, the possibility of an attempted assassination in Bosnia cannot be ignored completely and security services are working proactively to ensure a seamless visit. The pope’s Bosnian visit will be part practical and part symbolic, reaffirming his stated goals of inter-religious harmony in a divided society, ecumenical outreach, and the value of youth to the future of the church. As we have explained in great detail in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, Bosnia is a key country for the Holy See in Europe, as the pope’s upcoming visit once again indicates.