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Sarajevo Jewish aid organization awarded international peace prize

VATICAN CITY, April 15 (JTA) — During his brief visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo over the weekend, Pope John Paul II granted a cash award to the Sarajevo Jewish community’s social aid organization La Benevolencija. In a ceremony Sunday, he presented the Pope John XXIII International Peace Prize to four Sarajevo-based religious humanitarian organizations — La Benevolencija, the Roman Catholic Caritas, the Muslim Merhamet and the Serbian Orthodox Dobrotvor. Each organization received $50,000. “I willingly accepted the invitation to award [this] prize to four humanitarian organizations which have particularly distinguished themselves by their active work of relief and assistance during the difficult years of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the Republic of Croatia,” the pope said when presenting the awards. “In a situation often marked by grave tensions and difficulties, they provided concrete signs of hope by their presence and their generous and courageous activity, and thus helped to lay the foundation for a future of reconciliation and of genuine solidarity between different peoples and cultures in this beloved region,” he said. Throughout the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian civil war, including when Sarajevo was under a state of siege, La Benevolencija served as a key conduit of aid to Jews and non-Jews alike. During what was the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II, more than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and tens of thousands more were wounded. In Sarajevo alone, more than 8,000 people were killed, 769 of them children, according to the Bosnian Health Ministry. Supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Britain’s World Jewish Relief, individual Jewish communities in other countries and other organizations, La Benevolencija ran a clinic, pharmacies, a post office and soup kitchen throughout the conflict. La Benevolencija also distributed free medicines, food, clothing and other necessities. For La Benevolencija, the award was the latest in a series of international recognitions. The organization also has been named “Newsmaker of the Year 5756” by the London-based weekly Jewish Chronicle and received the Carl von Ossietzky medal from the International League for Human Rights in Berlin. La Benevolencija’s president, Jakob Finci, received The Pentland Young Jewish Care award for 1995 in London, and was named “Righteous Among the Righteous” by the Italian city of Rimini. The pope flew to Sarajevo on Saturday and returned to the Vatican on Sunday after celebrating an outdoor Mass in which he called for peace and reconciliation. He also met separately with representatives of Jewish and other religious communities in Sarajevo. The Pope John XXIII International Peace Prize was established by Pope John XXIII in 1963.

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