VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is heading to the Baltic countries this weekend amid renewed alarm about Russia’s intentions in the region it twice occupied for decades.

Francis’ 25th foreign visit comes a quarter of a century after St. John Paul II made the first papal visit to the former Soviet Union and cheered as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia emerged from five decades of Soviet-imposed religious repression and state-sponsored atheism.

Hopes were high back in 1993 – the last Russian troops had withdrawn from Lithuania just days before John Paul arrived. There is no such optimism for Francis’ Sept. 22-25 visit.

The three countries, which each have ethnic Russian minorities, are sounding alarms about Moscow’s military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea area following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support of separatists fighting the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine.

Russia will be something of the elephant in the sacristy, however, given how the Vatican has been loath to openly criticize Moscow or its powerful Orthodox Church. While seeking to avoid offense, Francis will likely praise the sacrifices of those who fought for independence a century ago during Russia’s revolution, and suffered again during Soviet rule.

“The pope will send a message to the world that the difficult history has not been forgotten and that it cannot repeat itself,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told the Baltic News Service.

The Baltic countries declared their independence in 1918 but were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained part of it until the early 1990s, except for the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation during World War II.