CEOL - Croats, Serbs, Muslims together at Christmas midnight mass

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Dec 25, 1999 -- (AFP) Serbs and Muslims joined with 400 Catholic Croats in celebrating the first midnight mass in the Bosnian Serb entity since the outbreak of the 1992-95 Bosnia war Saturday.

Christmas masses had been celebrated in Banja Luka in previous years, but out of fears of ethnically-motivated harassment were held at 6:00 p.m. (1700 GMT) so worshippers would not be out at night on the streets of Bosnian Serb capital city.

A dozen Serb policemen stood in front of the church during the service to provide security for the duration of the mass.

In the cathedral, packed to more than capacity so that many people could not find a seat, no one appeared surprised or offended when Bishop Franjo Komarica announced that there were Serbs among the congregation.

"Dear Catholics I wish you all a Merry Christmas, but I also wish the same to you believers from the Orthodox Church who will celebrate (Christmas) in 13 days time, for I know that some of you now are attending this midnight mass with us Catholics, and I thank you", the bishop said.

Republika Srpska's (RS, Bosnian Serb entity) is mainly populated by Serbs of the Orthodox faith who celebrate Christmas on January 7.

"Before the war I used to come here for the Catholic Christmas, but this is the first time since the war that I have attended a midnight mass here", Jadranka, 72, a Serb, told AFP after the service.

"All I could think of during this mass was: Why did the war happen to us? I still do not have the answer, but I am glad that we of different religions can live together again", Jadranka added.

Some 500 Croats returned to the Banja Luka region out of some 30,000 expelled by Bosnian Serbs during the war, Ivica Bozinovic, a priest told AFP.

"I am a Muslim, but despite everything I came here, for I do not see a reason why not. We can be of different religions, but we are first of all human beings. It was beautiful, I will never forget this evening", a Muslim woman, Zlata Sakovic, 64, who came to the mass with a Catholic friend, told AFP.

Zlata's friend was so touched by the service that all she could add through tears was: "I do not have words to describe what I feel. I am so happy".

Bishop Komarica expressed his sadness for about 220,000 Croats from the whole of Bosnia, or two thirds of the country's Croat community, who were not celebrating this Christmas in their homes, but as refugees.

"Father many of your (Croat) children are in exile, expelled from their homes, despised, please watch over them and give them consolation", the bishop said.

"Send a word to our brothers that dawn of better days is rising in Banja Luka and that this church's bells that are ringing now are sending a message of peace and forgiveness here", Komarica asked all worshippers at the end of the mass.

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