‘There can be no brother in the world, though he may yet have sinned as dreadfully as he could, who has seen thine eyes and then had to depart from thee without thy mercy.’ In this spirit of reconciliation and mercy, St Francis of Assisi spoke even before the Sultan of Babylon, and some biographies of the saint even tell us that the Sultan was converted, and even received baptism shortly before his death.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina terrible sins were committed 20 years ago, when war raged in the region. Many people were forced to flee; in fact over half of the 850,000 Catholics there were expelled. For those who have remained, or returned, the mistrust is palpable. There is fear, intolerance and an absence of dialogue. People are living alongside one another, not together in community. The Franciscan sisters in Sarajevo are now trying to promote new ways of reconciliation among the various ethnic and religious groups. They have launched a programme entitled ‘I offer my hand in peace and harmony’. In three centres they are organising courses for Christians and Muslims which aim to promote and practise ‘non-violent action and thinking’. The programme lasts for three years. Later on the participants (teachers, doctors, politicians, journalists and religious) will work as mediators in their villages. The aim is to promote peace, on the basis of faith. It is hoped the convents of the sisters will become centres for the promotion of peace. The Franciscan sisters are planning, and trusting in God. We are helping them to launch their reconciliation programme.

The best preparation for peace is love of God. Retreats and days of recollection for young people, also organised by the Franciscan sisters in the diocese of Sarajevo, are helping to smooth the path towards reconciliation and nonviolence. Karmela was profoundly impressed by adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. ‘Face to face with Jesus. A dialogue of hearts. Grace in abundance, totally undeserved. Believe me, I did not want to leave this oasis of peace and love.’ The oasis she speaks of is the youth and family pastoral centre run by the Franciscan sisters in Bijelo Polje. For many young people silence is a challenge. Jelena admits this plainly: ‘The silence, the prayer, the fasting – that was not easy for me’. But then she adds, ‘Through silence I have learnt again how to speak with God.’ Iva also acknowledges that ‘praying in the convent has once again revealed the true values. God’s touch is gentle, but strong.’

This oasis needs to be able to keep its doors open, even in winter, and to accommodate even more people. But, the water and electricity supply are completely inadequate. We are helping towards its renovation. It will be a means for renewing souls, and contact with God through prayer is a precondition for lasting reconciliation.

This article can be found in Mirror 0612.