The Latest: Pope quips "I am the devil" next to John Paul

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — The Latest on Pope Francis' visit to the Baltic countries (all times local):

6:35 p.m.

Pope Francis has acknowledged that his reputation pales a bit compared to St. John Paul II — at least as far as Poles are concerned.

Greeting journalists Saturday en route to Lithuania, Francis was given a book about the former pope by Polish photographer Grzegorz Galazka. Receiving the large book with a beaming John Paul on the cover, Francis quipped: "(Pope John Paul II) was a saint, I am the devil."

Laughing, Galazka immediately corrected him: "No, you are both saints! You are both saints!"

Francis' quip appeared to acknowledge that he has his detractors, particularly among conservative Catholics who long for the more doctrinaire papacies of John Paul and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.

The criticism of Francis by conservatives has grown more vocal recently amid the church's sex abuse scandals and the distress over his opening to letting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion.


1:50 p.m.

Lithuania's president has expressed gratitude to Pope Francis for paying tribute to Holocaust victims in the Baltic nation.

Francis landed Saturday in the capital Vilnius for a four-day visit to the Baltics. He will visit a memorial site of the Vilnius Ghetto on Sunday, the 75th anniversary of its final destruction.

President Dalia Grybauskaite said Saturday: "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."

On Sept. 23, 1943, the remaining residents in the Vilnius Ghetto were executed or sent off to concentration camps by the occupyuing forces of Nazi Germany.

Francis' visit will also include neighboring Latvia and Estonia.


11:45 a.m.

Pope Francis is urging Lithuania, which endured decades of Soviet and Nazi occupation, expulsions and executions, to be a model of solidarity in a world riven by intolerance as he began a visit to three Baltic nations.

Francis arrived in Lithuania on Saturday to encourage the faith and mark the 100th anniversary of Baltic independence, kicking off a grueling, four-day trip that will also take him to Latvia and Estonia.

Speaking outside the presidential palace in the capital Vilnius, Francis recalled that until the arrival of "totalitarian ideologies" in the 20th century, Lithuania had been a peaceful home to a variety of ethnic and religious groups.

He said the world today is marked by political forces that exploit fear and conflict to justify violence and expulsions of others — a reference to anti-immigrant populist and far-right groups in Europe and beyond.


8:20 a.m.

Pope Francis has departed on a pilgrimage to all three Baltic countries.

Francis left Rome early Saturday morning on a special Alitalia flight headed to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

His four-day trip will also include Latvia and Estonia.

Francis greeted the Airbus A320's captain and two of its flight attendants at the top of the stairs to the aircraft before taking his seat inside.


8:10 a.m.

Russia will be the elephant in the room as Pope Francis begins a four-day visit to the Baltics amid renewed alarm about Moscow's intentions in the region it has twice occupied.

Francis is travelling to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to mark the 100th anniversaries of their independence and to encourage the faith in the nations, which saw five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism.

"Fifty years of occupation left their mark both on the church and on the people," said Monsignor Gintaras Grusas, archbishop of Vilnius. "People have deep wounds from that period that take time to heal."

Francis lands Saturday in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to begin four-day, three-country trip that will feature encounters with political leaders as well as the Catholic, Lutheran and Russian Orthodox faithful.