Pope Francis made a plea for tolerance to Lithuanians as he began a visit to the Baltic states, warning against political forces that would seek to eliminate other cultures.
The remarks by Francis in Vilnius on September 22 came on the first day of his four-day visit to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia as they mark their 100th anniversary of independence this year.
Francis called on Lithuania, a predominately Catholic country, to use its decades of occupation by the Soviets and the Nazis as a basis for battling intolerance in the world.
“Look at the world in which we are living, in which the voices that sow division and confrontation are becoming ever louder,” he said.
Speaking outside the presidential palace in Vilnius, Francis said political forces in the world are “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.”
Francis, who was greeted by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite at the airport, said that before Lithuania’s occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, the country was home to a range of religious and ethnic groups that lived side-by-side in peace.
“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,” Francis said.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were part of the Russian Empire and briefly Soviet Russia before they declared independence 100 years ago.
The small countries were occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and by Germany for three years during World War II.
They regained independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991 and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.
On September 23, Francis was set to visit Vilnius’s Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. The museum is housed in a former KGB building and dedicated to the crimes of the Soviet regime.
According to the Vatican, around 80 percent of the Lithuanian population is Catholic. Latvia is a primarily Lutheran country, while Estonia is largely nonreligious and has a small Catholic population of around 5,000.
John Paul II was the only other pope to visit the Baltic states, in 1993.