Pope Francis says snuff out ‘any whiff’ of resurgent anti-Semitism

Pope Francis warned against allowing the rebirth of "pernicious" anti-Semitic attitudes that fueled the Holocaust during a visit to Lithuania that commemorated the country's Jewish community -- a group that was almost obliterated during World War II.

Francis began his second day in the Baltics in Lithuania's second city, Kaunas, where an estimated 3,000 Jews survived out of a community of 37,000 during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation.

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

"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 the crowd, which was estimated by the local church to number 100,000, according to the Associated Press. "Kaunas knows about this. Lithuania as a whole can testify to it, still shuddering at the mention of Siberia, or the ghettos of Vilnius and Kaunas, among others."

In countries across Europe, including Lithuania, far-right, xenophobic and neo-fascist political movements are making gains.

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Francis recalled that Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the Ghetto in the capital Vilnius, which had been known for centuries as the "Jerusalem of the North" for its importance to Jewish thought and politics. Each year, the Sept. 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.

The pope denounced those who get caught up in debating who was more historically virtuous and fail to address the problems of the present — seeming to reference historic revisionism that is afflicting parts of Eastern Europe as it comes to terms with wartime-era crimes.

He warned against the temptation "that can dwell in every human heart" to want to be superior or dominant to others. And he prayed for the gift of discernment "to detect in time any new seeds 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."

Francis noted that he would pray later in the day at a plaque in the Ghetto itself and called for "dialogue and the shared commitment for justice and peace."

Faithful gather to follow Pope Francis' celebrating Holy Mass at the Confluence Park in Kaunas, Lithuania, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018.

Faithful gather to follow Pope Francis' celebrating Holy Mass at the Confluence Park in Kaunas, Lithuania, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018. (AP)

Francis will also visit the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius that is now a museum dedicated to Soviet atrocities, and will hear from Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius, who was persecuted by the Soviet regime and was detained in the facility's chambers.

Francis is traveling 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. Lithuania is 80 percent Catholic.

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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 Baltic countries remained part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in the early 1990s.

Francis' trip changed its schedule three weeks ago to allow him to acknowledge the slaughter of some 90 percent of Lithuania's 250,000 Jews at the hands of Nazi occupiers and complicit Lithuanians.

The issue of Lithuanian complicity in Nazi war crimes is sensitive here. 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 the Soviet occupation.

Many Lithuanians don't make any distinctions between the Soviets who tortured and killed thousands of Lithuanians and the Nazis who did the same to millions of Jews.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.