Pope praises Latvia's Christian roots in enduring occupation

Pope Francis traveled Monday to the Baltic nation of Latvia, seeking to recognize its suffering under Soviet and Nazi occupation and to encourage the Christian faith that nevertheless endured.

On the third day of his Baltic pilgrimage, Francis laid flowers at the monument to Latvian independence and joined Lutheran and Orthodox leaders at a music-filled ecumenical prayer in Riga's towering Lutheran Rigas Doms cathedral. Choirs of young girls alternated with chanting ministers and were accompanied by the cathedral's famous organ, one of the oldest and largest in Europe.

In his arrival speech to Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis, Francis praised the Christian spirit that allowed the country to endure two Soviet occupations and the World War II-era occupation by Nazi Germany.

"You know all too well the price of that freedom, which you have had to win over and over again," he said. He praised the cooperation among different Christian churches that he said "shows that it is possible to build communion within differences."

Latvia's population of some 2 million is about a quarter Lutheran, with Catholic and Orthodox minorities.

Later Monday, Francis was greeting elderly Latvians at the Catholic cathedral in Riga before heading to the Catholic shrine at Aglona, near Latvia's eastern border with Russia, that is a draw for the faithful across the region.

Francis is visiting 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, the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation nearly exterminated their Jewish populations.

Francis on Sunday paid equal tribute to the partisans who fought the Soviets in Lithuania, as well as the Jewish community as it marked the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the ghetto in the capital Vilnius.