Pope honours victims of Soviet and Nazi crimes in Lithuania

Remigio Civitarese
Settembre 26, 2018

Each year, the September 23 anniversary is commemorated with readings of the names of Jews who were killed by Nazis or Lithuanian partisans or were deported to concentration camps.

In the homily of the Mass, Francis referred to those who collaborated with the Nazis in World War Two or with Communist authorities in the period between 1944 and 1991 when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union.

During Mass in the lush Santakos Park under a brilliant autumn sun, Francis honored both Jewish victims of Nazi-era executions and the Lithuanians who were deported to Siberian gulags or were tortured and oppressed at home during five decades of Soviet occupation.

Minutes later, he paid an emotional visit to the nearby Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, a former KGB basement jail where Lithuanians who were considered enemies of the Soviet Union were either executed or tortured before being sent to labor camps in Siberia.

"Earlier generations still bear the scars of the period of the occupation, anguish at those who were deported, uncertainty about those who never returned, shame for those who were informers and traitors", Francis told a crowd of about 100,000 people.

At the end, the Pope said that in the afternoon he would stop at the monument of the Vilnius Ghetto to pray on the 75th anniversary of its destruction.

"Kaunas knows about this".

He denounced those who debate who was more virtuous in the past and fail to address the tasks of the present - an apparent reference to historic revisionism. Two years of Nazi oppression in which tens of thousands of Jews were killed or deported culminated on September 23-24, 1943.

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.

Recalling the Holocaust, Francis prayed for divine "discernment" to alert the faithful to any reappearance of "that pernicious attitude, any whiff of it that can taint the heart of generations that did not experience those times and can sometimes be taken in by such siren songs".

The Pope said, Jesus offers us an antidote against the temptation of the desire for primacy and domination over others, which can dwell in our heart or in the heart of any society or country.

Across Europe, far-right, xenophobic and neo-fascist political movements are making gains, including in Lithuania.

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.

He invoked God's blessing on dialogue and common commitment for justice and peace.

The three countries, which each have ethnic Russian minorities, are also in lockstep in sounding alarms about Moscow's military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea area following Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine. Francis is paying tribute to Lithuanians who suffered and died during Soviet and Nazi occupation on the day the country remembers the near extermination of its centuries-old Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The issue of Lithuanian complicity in Nazi war crimes is sensitive here, and Jewish activists accuse some Lithuanians of engaging in historical revisionism by trying to equate the extermination of Jews with the deportations and executions of other Lithuanians during Soviet occupation.

More 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, aided by some locals.

Until recently, the Vilnius KGB museum was actually called the "Genocide Museum" but changed its name to the "Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights" since it focuses on Soviet atrocities, not Nazi German ones.

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