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KAUNAS, Lithuania – Pope Francis is paying tribute to Lithuanians who suffered and died during Soviet and Nazi occupations on the day the country remembers the near-extermination of its centuries-old Jewish community during the Holocaust.
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 on Sunday, Francis is expected to honor those victims as well as the Lithuanians who were deported to Siberian gulags or were tortured and oppressed at home during five decades of Soviet occupation.
Francis is to continue the remembrance with a visit to a museum in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius that is dedicated to Soviet atrocities as well as a prayer in the Vilnius Ghetto, which 75 years ago Sunday was finally destroyed and its remaining Jewish residents executed or sent off to concentration camps.
Each year, the Sept. 23 anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius Ghetto is commemorated with readings of the names of Jews who were executed by Nazis as well as by complicit Lithuanian partisans.
Francis is 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. Lithuania is 80 percent Catholic; Lutherans and Russian Orthodox count more followers in Latvia and Estonia, where Francis visits on Monday and Tuesday.
As he arrived Saturday, Francis urged Lithuanians to use their suffering under the "totalitarian ideologies" of the 20th century to promote tolerance and solidarity today. He denounced current political factions that are exploiting fear to justify violence and intolerance of others, a reference to the neo-fascist, anti-immigrant forces sweeping across Europe, including in neighboring Poland.
"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 alongside the Lithuanian president at the start of his four-day Baltics visit.
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.
Until Francis' schedule was changed three weeks ago, there were no specific events for him to acknowledge the slaughter of some 90 percent of Lithuania's 250,000 Jews at the hands of Nazi occupiers and complicit Lithuanians. At the last minute, the Vatican added in a visit to the Ghetto.
The issue of Lithuanian complicity in Nazi war crimes is sensitive here, and members of the Jewish community accuse some of engaging in historical revisionism by trying to equate the extermination of Jews with the deportations and executions of other Lithuanians during Soviet occupation.
Jewish activists have been campaigning to remove street signs named for heroes who fought the Soviets because of their roles in the executions of Jews.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite didn't refer to the complicity of Lithuanians in her remarks Saturday to the pope, but rather spoke of the "lessons of mercy" showed by other citizens during the Holocaust.
"In a country brutalized by both Nazi and Stalinist crimes, many people stood up to rescue Jews because they saw humanity as the ultimate good," she said.
This story corrects the dateline to Kaunas.
Liudas Dapkus contributed from Vilnius, Lithuania.