Aglona, Latvia, Sep 24 – Tens of thousands of people on Monday swarmed Pope Francis in largely Protestant Latvia on a visit many hope will put the small Baltic country on the map and bring its people closer together.
The pontiff was visibly tired but smiling as he arrived by helicopter to the southern village of Aglona where around 40,000 people — including some Poles, Russians and Ukrainians — greeted him at the country’s most important Catholic church.
“We came as a family to see the pope,” said Ivan Petrov, a Catholic who made the journey from the western Russian city of Pskov.
“It’s unlikely that Francis will be invited to Russia, at least in the immediate future,” he told AFP while carrying a Russian flag.
Latvian Laura Pushmucane said she was “positively surprised” to hear the rosary recited in Latgalian, a dialect whose use was restricted under Latvia’s former Nazi and communist regimes.
The pope notably quoted Boleslavs Sloskans, a Catholic bishop from the Latgale region who was exiled during the Cold War.
“Do not let hatred ignite in our hearts, not even against our oppressors, because hatred would turn us from faithful believers into fanatics,” he quoted.
The Latvian government had declared Monday a public holiday for the papal visit.
Many were grateful to the pope for visiting Latvia in a year when it along with two other Baltic countries celebrates 100 years of independence.
Occupied by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviets for nearly half a century, Latvia is now tied to the west as an EU and NATO member.
But the country of 1.9 million people is still in the process of building a national identity.
– Faith unites –
Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis told Francis that “faith brings countries together beyond their national differences.”
Protestants make up 25 percent of the Latvian population, followed by Catholics at 21 percent and Orthodox 11 percent.
Earlier Monday, Francis met Christian leaders — Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian — at Riga’s Lutheran cathedral.
The immense red-brick building is the largest medieval cathedral in the Baltic states and houses one of the world’s largest organs.
Shuttered by Soviet authorities in 1959, the cathedral became a concert hall before the Lutherans got it back in 1989.
Francis lauded what he said was a country marked by “friendship between the different Christian churches, which have succeeded in building unity while preserving the unique and rich identity of each.”
The pope also visited the freedom monument in downtown Riga, a huge statue of a woman with arms raised towards the sky.
“I’m happy he’s here. I recognise him even though I’m Lutheran,” said lawyer Ketija Strazda, who was among the couple hundred people who turned up to see the pontiff.
“He’s the head of a major religion… He’ll make my country known abroad.”
Tabita and Helga, two young Catholic volunteers, were also there handing out little flags in the Vatican colours.
“Thanks to the pope’s visit, perhaps more people will find the way to God,” Tabita said.
Before arriving in Latvia, Francis spent the weekend in Lithuania — the only Catholic-majority country of the three Baltic states. He was due to end his tour in Estonia on Tuesday.