VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Pope John Paul II takes his first step on former Soviet soil here tomorrow, with a long-awaited visit that finally will consecrate the cultural and political independence of this tiny Baltic nation.
The pope's trip is not simply a religious milestone for Lithuanians, for whom the church was a rallying point of national identity and opposition to communist rule.
"The Catholic church was the main power trying to fight for human souls in every possible way," said Vytautas Landsbergis, the musician who led the independence movement here and became free Lithuania's first leader.
More than a million people from across the region are expected to seek a glimpse of the spiritual head of the faith that sustained Lithuanians through centuries of foreign rule -- by Prussians, Poles, Russia's czars, German Nazis and the Soviet dictatorship.
The pontiff will spend four days in this country, the only former Soviet republic that was predominantly Roman Catholic, then will visit Latvia for two days and briefly stop in Estonia. In the other two Baltic countries, Lutheran or Russian Orthodox believers outnumber Catholics.
Highlighting the pope's visit will be a trip to a remote hillside about 125 miles northwest of the capital, where for centuries Lithuanians have upheld a tradition of raising crosses.
In the Soviet era, efforts to raze the site and keep it cleared of daring religious symbols repeatedly were challenged by Lithuanians who risked imprisonment and exile to sneak crosses up the hill at night.
Today it is a forest of thousands of crosses, from an inch to 50 feet high, made of everything from match sticks to stone. Tens of thousands of beaded rosaries hang on the crossbars.
Authorities said 500,000 to one million people will watch Pope John Paul II bless the site on Tuesday.
For years Lithuanians have urged a pastoral visit, particularly when the Vilnius Cathedral was reconsecrated in 1989 after decades of non-religious use and abuse under the Soviet regime.
But the pope refused to come while Lithuania remained under Soviet administration and military occupation. Russia finally agreed to withdraw its forces one year ago, but it was only Tuesday that the last combat units actually rolled across the border toward home.
Mr. Landsbergis, now leading the parliamentary opposition following an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in February, said in an interview that the role of the church grew increasingly important here after a decade of guerrilla warfare against Soviet communism was crushed in 1953. An estimated 400,000 Lithuanians were exiled to the Russian gulag for waging the battle he called "the unknown Afghanistan."
It was small groups of young intellectuals and priests who maintained an underground movement, he said, tending the coals of nationalism that would burst into open political resistance with the founding of the nationalist group Sajudis in 1988.