ZADAR, Croatia – Pope John Paul II wrapped up his grueling 100th foreign pilgrimage Monday by reassuring Croats struggling to heal the wounds of war that their courage and faith would ensure a brighter future.
A spirited crowd of more than 100,000 people chanted the pope's name in rhythmic, sports-arena style as John Paul bade them farewell with a stirring tribute to their efforts to overcome bitterness left over from conflict in the 1990s.
He arrived back in Rome Monday afternoon.
"Thanks to you beloved people of Croatia (search) ... you who accepted me with open arms and hearts," the pope said. "I remember your sufferings caused by the war, which are still visible on your faces and are affecting your lives."
"I am close to all those who are enduring the tragic consequences of that war," John Paul said. "I know your strength, your courage and your faith — and I am sure that your continuing efforts will enable you to see better days."
As he arrived in Zadar (search), a hotbed of Croatian nationalism, the pope's motorcade took him past a giant poster of fugitive war crimes suspect Gen. Ante Gotovina (search) emblazoned with the words, "A hero, not a war criminal."
Although Gotovina is sought by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for 1990s atrocities, many here hail him as a patriot, underscoring Croatia's struggle to shed its nationalist past.
Officials pulled down other posters of the general ahead of the pope's visit, but left the large one in place out of concern that removing it might incite war veterans and nationalists.
A man in the crowd held up a photo of Gotovina, but the pope steered clear of the dispute in his liturgy to the pilgrims who packed a pine-dotted seaside promenade, clogged Zadar's narrow marble alleyways and watched from hundreds of boats bobbing in the harbor.
He confined his remarks to the virtues of Mary, calling her "a model for all who hear the word of God and put it into practice" and an example for "the pilgrims of the third millennium."
John Paul also mentioned Pope Alexander III (search), who visited Zadar in 1177 — apparently by accident after his ship was blown off-course during an Adriatic storm.
The 83-year-old pontiff waved repeatedly to the crowd from beneath a yellow sail-shaped canopy that gave him some relief from the withering heat, but he looked drawn and fatigued and his speech at times was slurred as he concluded his taxing five-day, five-city tour of Croatia.
The pope perked up, though, when the crowd burst into chants of "You are ours, and we are yours!"
John Paul suffers from Parkinson's disease (search) and crippling knee and hip ailments, and uses a special hydraulic chair so he can celebrate Mass while seated.
Although a June 22 day trip to Bosnia is still on, top Vatican officials have suggested that a proposed visit to Mongolia in August could be dropped.
Nearly a decade after Croatia's war with minority Serbs who rebelled against the country's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, its leaders are still working to overcome lingering nationalism, hatred and bitterness.
"Today we still bear the wounds from the 20th century and the three wars that grievously afflicted our people," Zadar's archbishop, Ivan Prendja, told John Paul.
Reconciliation has not come easily in Zadar.
Buildings in the medieval town still bear the pock marks of bullet and mortar fire in 1991, when local Serbs tried to pound the town into surrender and prevent the country's secession. Thousands of people were killed in the fighting, while dozens of outlying villages were razed to the ground before being taken over.
The government retook the territory in a blitz offensive in 1995 that sent about 150,000 Serbs fleeing. Gotovina was indicted in 2001 by the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for atrocities allegedly committed during and after the 1995 campaign.
He denied the charges and went into hiding, promoting the Croatian government to offer a $50,000 reward for information on his whereabouts. The NATO-led peacekeeping force in neighboring Bosnia said Monday it arrested several people in a hunt for Gotovina on Sunday, but that the fugitive general was not among them.
"We're not deaf to the pope's message. We just think it would be a crime to surrender those who saved our lives," said Marijan Viduka, 44, a construction worker.
Croats, eight in 10 of whom are Catholic, expressed gratitude to the pope for supporting their efforts to strengthen the republic's fragile democracy and his encouragement as they seek to join the European Union, perhaps as early as 2007.
"If we succeeded in the hardest times of war, with his support, then we will certainly succeed this time when it comes to joining the EU," Prime Minister Ivica Racan (search) said Sunday after an audience with the pope in the Adriatic seaport of Rijeka.