SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) -- Pope Francis is heading to Sarajevo for a one-day visit to encourage the dwindling number of Catholics to stay and help forge a peaceful future with Bosnia's Muslims and Orthodox Christians following a devastating three-way war.
Some 100,000 people are expected to come from across the region to Sarajevo, a largely Muslim city of 300,000 that was once known as "Europe's Jerusalem" for its interfaith harmony among Christians, Muslims and Jews. It became synonymous with religious enmity during the 1992-95 conflict that left 100,000 dead and displaced half of the population.
Francis has said he is 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 Bosniaks 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 toward peace, coexistence and collaboration," Francis said in a video message earlier this week.
On the eve of his visit, Catholics across Bosnia dropped on their knees at an agreed time Friday evening during candle-lit vigils to pray for all those around the world who are persecuted for their faith.
"We hope his visit will seal the peace that has returned after the war and that it will last forever," said Drazen Raguz, 51, who came with his family from the south of the country.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, noted that the Catholic population had shrunk across Bosnia in part because of the high unemployment rate -- currently 43 percent, with the youth unemployment at 67 percent. Scores of Catholics, who hold Croatian passports, have left to find work in the European Union.
"In some of the parishes, there are only a few families left and most of the faithful are elderly," Parolin lamented.
Francis will try to encourage those who have stayed, celebrating a Mass in the same stadium where St. John Paul II presided over an emotional, snow-blown service in 1997 that attracted thousands of Catholic Croats to the city for the first time since the fighting ended.
John Paul had tried to visit Sarajevo during the war, but the trip was called off for security reasons. His willingness to even consider a trip endeared him to a city that felt abandoned and betrayed by the world -- sentiments of affection that have been projected onto his successor two decades later.
Francis will also host a meeting with Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish leaders, and preside over a rally for young people before returning to Rome in the evening.
Winfield reported from Rome.
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