At Russia's doorstep, pope slams arms threats

Tallinn (AFP) –


Pope Francis on Tuesday wrapped up his tour of the Baltic region, neighbouring Russia, by slamming those who "hurl threats about using weapons" and "deploying troops".

The warning was part of a homily delivered by the pope in the Estonian capital of Tallinn during which he did not mention Moscow directly.

But Estonia and its fellow Baltic states Latvia and Lithuania have been spooked by Russia since its annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine.

"The relationship between Russia, Estonia and NATO is one way to interpret this speech," said Erkki Bahovski, editor-in-chief of the foreign affairs magazine Diplomaatia.

"However, I think that the pope was speaking rather of personal freedom when he mentioned slavery to consumerism and individualism," he told AFP.

Estonian journalist Evelyn Kaldoja for her part said "to me it's clear he's speaking about Russia."

Russia frequently holds military exercises near the borders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Its planes also sometimes approach Baltic airspace, requiring NATO jets to be scrambled to intercept the aircraft.

The pope said Tuesday that it is important to "listen and seek", but added that "these days, we may think that the strength of a people is measured by other means."

"Some people speak in a loud voice... Others shout and hurl threats about using weapons, deploying troops and implementing strategies. That way they appear to be stronger," he said.

"Underlying this attitude is a rejection of ethics and, as such, a rejection of God."

- Wary of Russia -

Not once did the pope mention Russia during his public appearances in the Baltic states over the last four days.

But some Russian Catholics came to see him in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas over the weekend, while on Tuesday a Russian song was played for the pope during his meeting with youths at a Lutheran cathedral in Estonia.

Vatican diplomats have been trying for years to no avail to arrange a papal visit to Russia.

However the pope did meet with President Vladimir Putin in Rome in 2015 and with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba a year later.

For many Baltic Christians, Russia is a cause for concern.

"We are right next to Russia, and we cannot not fear them. The fear is there," Lithuanian archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius had told reporters over the weekend.

The now 79-year-old had been arrested by the Soviet regime and imprisoned for having founded and edited the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania.

"Our neighbour is very difficult to understand," he said of Russia, but added that he is reassured by the NATO troops stationed in Lithuania.

Even some Western troops turned out on their own time to see the pope hold mass in the Baltics: Belgian soldiers in Lithuania, Canadians in Latvia and British troops in Estonia.

The pope's visit to the Baltic states comes as they each celebrate 100 years of a sometimes precarious independence.

Occupied by Nazi Germany, then by the Soviets for nearly half a century, the Baltic trio are now tied to the west as an EU and NATO member.

"We have overcome the occupation. We know what it means to stand in front of tanks with a prayer," Lithuanian bishop Kestutis Kevalas said in Kaunas over the weekend.

"Today we need encouragement and hope so that our freedom project does not come to an end halfway."