Pope Francis smiles as he arrives with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, right, ahead of a meeting with authorities, civil society and diplomatic corps in the square in front of the Presidential Palace, in Vilnius, Lithuania, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. Pope Francis begins a four-day visit to the Baltics amid renewed alarm about Moscow's intentions in the region it has twice occupied. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope opens Baltics pilgrimage with plea for tolerance

September 22, 2018 - 8:18 am

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Pope Francis urged Lithuanians to use their decades of suffering under Soviet and Nazi occupations to become models of tolerance in an intolerant world as he began a three-nation tour of the Baltics on Saturday amid renewed alarm over the intentions of neighboring Russia.

Francis was greeted by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite at the airport and immediately launched into a hectic schedule of political meetings and visits with Lutheran and Russian Orthodox leaders and ordinary Catholics, who are a majority in Lithuania but minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

Speaking outside the presidential palace in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, Francis recalled that until the arrival of "totalitarian ideologies" in the 20th century, Lithuania had peacefully been home to a variety of ethnic and religious groups, including Christians, Jews and Muslims.

He said the world today is marked by political forces that exploit fear to justify violence and intolerance of others, "proclaiming that the only way possible to guarantee security and the continued existence of a culture is to try to eliminate, cancel or expel others."

In a reference to the spread of anti-immigrant, populist forces in Europe and beyond, Francis said Lithuania could be a model of openness, understanding, tolerance and solidarity.

"You have suffered 'in the flesh' those efforts to impose a single model that would annul differences under the pretense of believing that the privileges of a few are more important than the dignity of others or the common good," he said.

Francis was travelling to the region to mark their 100th anniversaries of independence and to encourage the faith in the Baltics, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism. In addition, during the 1940s Nazi occupation, Lithuania's centuries-old Jewish community was nearly exterminated.

A quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are sounding alarms anew about Moscow's military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea, as well as Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government.

The Vatican, however, has been loath to openly criticize Moscow or its powerful Orthodox Church, suggesting that any modern threats from Russia will be the unmentioned elephant in the room during his trip.

The Baltic countries declared their independence in 1918 but were annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940 in a secret agreement with Nazi Germany. The Vatican and many Western countries refused to recognize the annexation. Except for the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation, the countries remained part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in the early 1990s.

All three joined the European Union and NATO in 2004 and are strong backers of the military alliance, which sees them as a bulwark against Russian incursions in Eastern Europe.

The trip, which features Francis' fondness for countries on the periphery, was supposed to be a welcome break for the Argentine pope. His credibility has taken a blow recently following missteps on the church's priestly sex abuse scandal and recent allegations that he covered up for an American cardinal.

But the Baltic visit was overshadowed somewhat by the announcement of a breakthrough in Vatican-China relations over the nomination of bishops, with Vatican officials in Lithuania diverting attention to issue statements about China.

His visit to Vilnius coincides with the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the Vilnius Ghetto, on Sept. 23, 1943, when its remaining residents were executed or sent off to concentration camps by the Nazis.

Until Francis' schedule was changed three weeks ago, there were no events for him to acknowledge the slaughter of some 90 percent of Lithuania's 250,000 Jews at the hands of Nazi occupiers and complicit Lithuanian partisans.

At the last minute, the Vatican added in a visit to the Ghetto, where Francis will pray quietly Sunday on the day when the names of Holocaust victims are read out at commemorations across the country of 3.2 million people.

Grybauskaite didn't refer to the complicity of Lithuanians in her remarks to the pope, but rather spoke of the "lessons of mercy" showed by other citizens during the Holocaust.

"In a country brutalized by both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, many people stood up to rescue Jews because they saw humanity as the ultimate good," she said.

The issue of Lithuanian complicity in Nazi war crimes is sensitive here. Jewish activists have been campaigning to have street signs named for heroes who fought the Soviets removed because of their roles in the executions of Jews.

"I think the presence of the pope is showing attention to the Holocaust and to the Holocaust victims," said Simonas Gurevichius, chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Community. "However, it is not the pope who has to do the work, it is Lithuania as a country and as a society who needs to do the work."

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This story corrects the translation of the Lithuanian leader's last name to Grybauskaite.

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