VATICAN CITY/VILNIUS (Reuters) - Pope Francis will carry a message of solidarity to the Baltic nations on a visit starting on Saturday, nearly 30 years after they broke away from the Soviet Union and as they look warily toward a newly aggressive Russia.
The four-day trip is the first by a pope to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia since 1993 and, a quarter of a century on, the countries are members of NATO and the euro zone.
But the past still looms large in a region subject in turn to Soviet and Nazi oppression and where religious persecution left a traumatic legacy.
In Lithuania, where he starts his trip, Francis will visit the Vilnius Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, a former Soviet KGB prison where hundreds were murdered and thousands, including many priests, shipped off to Siberia.
“By visiting the KGB jail, Pope Francis sends a message that he cares about the people who suffered for their faith, for their devotion to the motherland,” said Bishop Sigitas Tamkevicius, 79, imprisoned there in 1983 before spending six years in Soviet labor camps.
“This was our nation’s Golgotha, a trial of our faith,” Tamkevicius, who will accompany the pope to the jail, told Reuters.
The region also still bears the inter-religious scars left by the murder of more than 200,000 Jews by the Nazis, aided by some locals. The pope will pray at a monument to the victims of the Vilnius ghetto, where only several hundred of some 40,000 survived the Holocaust.
After independence won in 1918, the countries were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, occupied by the Nazis during World War Two and were then satellite republics of the USSR until 1991.
Recent events in Russia, with which all three states share a land border, have brought on new nervousness.
As Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and fears grew that the Baltics might be next on Moscow’s list, defense spending was increased sharply and several thousand NATO soldiers were deployed.
The Baltics say they are victims of a sustained anti-western disinformation campaign by Russia and subjected to regular intimidation tactics including cyber attacks - charges the Kremlin denies.
In 1993, Pope John Paul helped the three countries celebrate their liberation.
While political freedoms in the Baltic states remain hard-won, in one respect Francis’ trip will be very different, with their wealth having shot up thanks to an export-oriented boom.
“There was great hope for the future (and) the economic situation was very difficult” in 1993, Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, told Reuters.
About 77 percent of Lithuania’s population of 2.9 million are Catholic, while Catholicism is a minority in the other two countries.
In Riga, Francis will pay tribute to Latvia’s independence heroes at the Monument to Freedom and preside over at an ecumenical service at the city’s Lutheran cathedral.
In Tallinn, Estonia - where the Vatican says there are only about 4,500 Catholics - Francis will say Mass in Freedom Square, the site of military parades in Soviet times was where thousands of candles are burned each year to commemorate Soviet deportees.
Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, writing by Philip Pullella; editing by John Stonestreet