VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Tens of thousands of Lithuanians lined the narrow streets of the Old Town of Vilnius and cheered Saturday as Pope Francis’ popemobile passed by, an exuberant greeting that must have been welcome to a pope battered by new revelations in the Catholic Church’s long-running sex abuse scandal.
The church’s mounting credibility crisis was nowhere to be seen or heard on Vilnius’ streets, which were filled with Lithuanians and Poles who arrived by the busload to welcome Francis as he kicked off a four-day visit to three Baltic countries concerned about neighboring Russia.
Francis was travelling to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia 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.
Speaking outside the Vilnius presidential palace upon his arrival, Francis recalled that until the imposition 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.
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.
A quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union, the three countries 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, a stance that suggests that any modern threats from Russia will be the unmentioned elephant in the room during his trip.
The trip, which features Francis’ fondness for countries on the periphery, was 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.
The Baltic visit was overshadowed, however, by the announcement of a breakthrough in Vatican-China relations over the nomination of bishops.
Still, the China agreement and the church’s sex abuse scandals were far from the minds of the pilgrims who flooded into Vilnius for the pope’s visit. That was welcome show of support after Francis’ previous two major trips this year — to Chile and Ireland — were dominated by the sex abuse scandal and featured smaller-than-expected crowds.
Lithuania is 80 percent Catholic and is a major pilgrimage destination for Poles because of its Divine Mercy shrine, where Francis prayed Saturday.
“I came here with a group of five very nice young people to meet Pope Francis, to tell him that we are with him and to spend good time here in Vilnius and in Kaunas,” Lithuania’s second city, said Yakub Nevezheva, a young pilgrim from Krakow in Poland.
Francis’ visit 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.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite didn’t refer to the complicity of Lithuanians in her remarks Saturday 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.”
This story corrects the translation of the Lithuanian leader’s last name to Grybauskaite.
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