WARSAW, Poland (CNS) — Lithuanian Archbishop Gintaras Grusas said citizens are anxious about military threats from neighbouring Russia but said support from Europe and the United States helped calm those fears.
The U.S.-born archbishop, president of the Lithuanian bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service, “The old Soviet empire mentality is still alive, and there are many in Russia who consider the three Baltic states part of that empire.
“But Lithuanians have fought hard to re-establish their independence and are committed to maintaining it. They’ve shown they’re willing to pay a price for freedom — and they’re showing it again today in the turnout of volunteers for military service,” said the Vilnius archbishop.
In early 2017, NATO plans to send 3,000 troops to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland, to counter Russia’s military buildup in the Baltic region.
In a Nov. 29 interview with Catholic News Service, Grusas said the projected U.S.-led deployments had provided “some reassurance,” but cautioned that concern remained high because of repeated airspace violations and the stationing of heavy weaponry in Russia’s military enclave of Kaliningrad, on Lithuania’s western border.
“There are always tensions because we’re close to the Russian border and hard to defend, so having our NATO partners’ boots on the ground here shows we’re not left on our own,” Grusas said.
“As a church, we’re following Pope Francis in encouraging prayers for peace. We’re also maintaining a community spirit and helping people seek truth when a lot of negative propaganda is being spread by Russian-language media and the internet.”
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. They joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, gaining protection under the alliance’s Article 5 collective defence guarantee.
However, all three have increased defence spending sharply and stepped up anti-tank defences since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Ukraine. The buildup of radar, air defence systems and nuclear batteries in Kaliningrad is believed likely to impede NATO reinforcements in the Baltics during a crisis. Lithuania’s government reintroduced military conscription in 2015 and has circulated civil defence pamphlets advising citizens what to do in the event of a Russian invasion.
Catholics make up about 78 per cent of Lithuania’s three million inhabitants, compared to about 20 per cent in Latvia and less than one per cent in Estonia. All three Baltic States are home to substantial Russian minorities: six per cent in Lithuania, 26 per cent in Latvia and 25 per cent in Estonia.
Copyright (c) 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops