Pope urges Hungary to ‘extend its arms to everyone’ in veiled Orbán critique

Pope Francis has urged Hungary to “extend its arms towards everyone” in an apparent veiled critique of Viktor Orbán’s anti-migrant policies, as the pontiff began a four-day visit to central Europe in his first big international outing since undergoing intestinal surgery in July.

Francis, 84, appeared in good form during his visit to Budapest, presiding over a lengthy mass and standing as he waved to crowds from his open-sided popemobile. He used a golf cart to avoid walking long distances indoors and confessed at one point that he had to sit because “I’m not 15 any more”. But otherwise he kept up the typical gruelling pace of a papal trip.

Francis spent just seven hours in Budapest before arriving on Sunday afternoon in neighbouring Slovakia. The lopsided itinerary suggested that Francis wanted to avoid giving Orbán – the type of populist nationalist he frequently criticises – the political boost that comes with hosting a pope for a state visit, ahead of elections in Hungary next spring.

Francis met Orbán, whose refugee policies clash with the pope’s call to welcome and integrate those seeking better lives in Europe. After the meeting, Orbán wrote on Facebook: “I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish.”

Orbán has frequently depicted his government as a defender of Christian civilisation in Europe and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries. In 2015, he rejected proposals to settle refugees from the Middle East and Africa in Hungary and erected a fence along Hungary’s southern border to keep out asylum seekers trying to enter the EU.

The Vatican said the meeting was held in a “cordial atmosphere” and at 40 minutes lasted longer than expected. “Among the various topics discussed were the role of the church in the country, the commitment to the protection of the environment, the protection and promotion of the family,” it said in a statement.

Vatican and Hungarian officials have said Francis was not snubbing Hungary by staying for such a short time, noting that the Hungarian church and state had only invited him to close an international conference on the eucharist on Sunday.

It was at the end of that mass that Francis urged Hungarians to remain steadfast in their religious roots, but not in a defensive way that closes them off from the rest of the world. “Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots. Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well rooted, it also raises and extends its arms toward everyone.”

He said people should stay firm in their roots while “opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time”. “My wish is that you be like that: rounded and open, rooted and considerate,” he said.

Orbán had a front-row seat during the mass. In their private meeting, he gave Francis a copy of a 1243 letter from King Béla IV of Hungary to Pope Innocent IV which informed the pope that Béla would strengthen fortifications along the Danube in Hungary in preparation for a Mongol invasion.

Francis referred to that history in his meeting with the country’s bishops, but also urged them to preach a message of openness and dialogue with newcomers. “Diversity always is scary because it puts at risk acquired securities and provokes stability,” he said. “But it’s still a great opportunity because it opens the heart.”

Francis’s visit and his final mass in Heroes’ Square went ahead with few coronavirus restrictions even as Hungary, like the rest of Europe, is battling new infections fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant. Few in the crowd wore masks and no tests or vaccination certificates were required to gain entrance. In Hungary, 65.4% of over-18s have been vaccinated.

Matyas Mezosi, a Hungarian Catholic who got to the mass site early, was jubilant. “It’s great to see him recovered from that surgery,” he said. “Him being here in Hungary today means that he sacrifices himself to be with us, and that he feels good now.”

During the flight from Rome, Francis stayed so long greeting journalists at the back of the plane that an aide had to tell him to get back to his seat because it was time to land. He said he was happy to be resuming foreign trips again after the coronavirus lull and his post-operative recovery. “If I’m alive, it’s because bad weeds never die,” he quipped about his health, quoting an Argentine dictum.

But later in the morning he apologised to a gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders for having to deliver his speech sitting down. In his remarks, Francis warned against a resurgence of antisemitism in Europe, saying it was a “fuse which must not be allowed to burn”.

The Argentine pope called for Christians, Jews and people of other faiths to commit themselves to promoting greater fraternity “so that outbursts of hatred that would destroy that fraternity will never prevail”.

Hungary’s large Jewish population was devastated during the closing months of the second world war, which brought more than 550,000 Jewish deaths. More Hungarians died in Auschwitz than any other nationality, and more Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust than from any country except Poland and the Soviet Union.

Hungary’s government under Orbán has been accused of trafficking in veiled antisemitic stereotypes, largely aimed at the Hungarian-born American financier and philanthropist George Soros, whom the government frequently accuses of meddling in the country’s affairs.

Registered churches have been major beneficiaries of state support under Orbán since he returned to power in 2010. Additionally, about 3,000 places of worship have been built or restored using public funds since 2010.

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