Pope urges religious tolerance
OSIJEK, Croatia (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II celebrated an open-air Mass Saturday at an air field in the eastern Croatian town of Osijek on his third day in the former Yugoslav republic.
Osijek is the largest town in Croatia's Slavonia region, near the border with Serbia. The town was heavily shelled by Serb forces during the breakup of the Yugoslav republic in the 1990s.
Bishop Marin Srakic of Djakovo and Srijem addressed the 83-year-old pontiff at the beginning of Saturday's Mass, saying he hoped the service would help Croatians in Osijek to cleanse their memories of their past, according to the Catholic Press Agency.
Srakic said his diocese "endured senseless aggression 10 years ago, during which innocents, cities and villages suffered grievously.
"It is sufficient merely to mention the city of Vukovar, the symbol of our suffering," he said, referring to the besieged Croatian city near Osijek. "We do not wish to be slaves to the past but a people with a view to the future, which we want to build together with the faithful of other Christian Churches and religious communities, with all people of good will."
Two people died prior to the Mass, one of a heart attack. There were reports that many people fainted and others sought medical attention because of effects from the heat. (Full story)
Meanwhile, a Vatican spokesman downplayed death threats against the pope, sent via e-mail to two Croatian news agencies.
The e-mails -- sent Friday to Croatia's national news agency HINA and the Catholic Press Agency -- were signed by the Islamic Front of the Mujahideen.
While local authorities are investigating the threats, Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters such threats are not uncommon when the pontiff travels abroad. His five-day visit to Croatia marks his 100th trip.
Navarro-Valls said the Vatican had received a previous threat against pope, but it was never carried out.
"Naturally the credibility of this information is very doubtful and on past occasions has proven to be clearly false," he told reporters on a flight between the cities of Rijeka and Osijek.
On Friday, the pontiff celebrated Mass in the coastal city of Dubrovnik, where he beatified a Croatian nun and celebrated the sacrifices and praised the suffering of women.
Croats have welcomed the pope with open arms. An estimated 50,000 people turned out Thursday to greet him both at the airport and at the port city of Rijeka.
The Vatican was among the first to recognize Croatia's independence in 1992.
Croatia suffers 20 percent unemployment and still struggles to emerge from the ashes of the war. The pope's visit certainly boosts the morale of this country's 80 percent Catholic population, but it is also aimed at promoting the message of peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance.
Thursday the pope voiced support for Croatia's bid to join the European Union, which could come as early as 2007.
He is visiting five cities from one end of the country to the other during his stay. After his visit to Osijek, the pontiff will visit Djakovo, returning to Rijeka on Sunday, and he will make his last stop in Zadar on Monday.
Despite his age and illness, the pope continues to travel extensively. He plans to visit Bosnia, another former Yugoslav republic, for a one-day trip at the end of June.
During his 25 years as head of the Catholic church, the pope has covered more than 700,000 miles in his treks and has delivered more than 2,300 speeches. He has visited more than 600 cities, some more than once, and 179 countries.
The pontiff also plans to visit Slovakia later in the year and there is talk of a trip to Mongolia, but a Vatican official recently said that may not happen because of the pope's health.
Last month, an Italian newspaper quoted a top Vatican official as confirming reports the pontiff suffers from Parkinson's disease.
The head of the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that his prayers help him cope with the disease.
-- CNN Rome Bureau Chief Alessio Vinci contributed to this report