Lithuania summons Pope's diplomat over remarks on Russian empire heritage

FILE PHOTO: Pope Francis leads the Angelus prayer from his window at the Vatican

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Majority-Catholic EU member Lithuania has summoned the Vatican's top diplomat in the country after Pope Francis told Russian youths to remember they are the heirs of "the great Russian empire".

In response to the impromptu remarks Francis made on Friday in a live video address to Catholic youths gathered in St. Petersburg, the Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Ministry invited the Apostolic Nuncio for "a talk" after the archbishop returns from holidays, a ministry spokesperson said on Wednesday.

The Vatican said on Tuesday Pope Francis did not intend to glorify Russian imperialism in the speech, in which he also extolled Russian emperors Peter the Great and Catherine II who expanded the Russian empire.

The territories of Lithuania and Poland were annexed into the Russian empire in the 18th century by Catherine II. The countries broke away after World War I, after two 19th century revolts against the empire were brutally suppressed.

Francis' intent was "to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage", said Vatican.

Ukraine, once part of the same empire, said the comments were "deeply regrettable". The Kremlin described them as "very gratifying".

Lithuania, a nation of 2.8 million where three quarters identify as Roman Catholics, has been a staunch critic of Russia and supporter of Ukraine in both the European Union and NATO.

The Catholic Church is still revered in the country for its anti-Communist, pro-independence stance while it was under Soviet Union annexation. During the period, the Vatican kept Lithuanian diplomatic representation to the Holy See as it did not recognize the annexation.

Francis celebrated a mass to a crowd of an estimated 100 thousand in Lithuania when he visited in 2018.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Bernadette Baum)