Pope Francis, who has made welcoming migrants, embracing minorities and warning against nationalism central tenets of his papacy, visited Budapest on Friday for the second time in less than two years. The visit gives Prime Minister Viktor Orban, perhaps Europe’s main opponent of migrants, Russia’s closest ally and most vocal critic of gay rights, a political gift he certainly doesn’t want to waste.

Upon landing, Francis left his wheelchair and walked with a cane to a red carpet on the tarmac, where children in traditional dress fed him bread. He joked with dignitaries and bishops and had a bite before getting into the front seat of a car to meet Mr Orban and other Hungarian leaders in Budapest’s Kassel district and seemed at ease and in good spirits.

During a 10-year papal reign in which Francis met with many strongmen and dictators to protect his flock and push for the defense of human rights and peace, he rarely faced his hosts, Instead they are looking for areas of agreement, even if it is risky. Legalizing policies they find disgusting.

In Hungary, a dressing down is even less likely, as some analysts see the Pope and Mr Orban as sharing a similar desire to end the war in Ukraine, and Francis framing the visit in terms of Christian unity. He called it an opportunity to “re-embrace” the Hungarian Church in its journey to “the center of Europe”, which is being battered by the icy winds of war, while the movement of so many people puts humanitarian issues on the agenda. ,

The Vatican has said that the Pope’s three-day apostolic visit to Hungarian Catholics, in which he will meet Mr. Orban will meet refugees and the poor as well, something completely different from the stop he made in Budapest for a few hours to celebrate in 2021. Mass at the end of the week-long Catholic convention.

“The tone of this visit is different,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni, while others in the Vatican argued that it should be considered his first official visit to the country. They also suggested that the Pope, 86 and making his 41st trip abroad – and his first since being hospitalized last month – would clarify his disagreement with Mr Orban and not be used as a pawn .

But Mr. Orban’s critics worry that no matter how good Francis’s intentions are, his visit is playing into Mr. Orban’s able political hands. Hungarian officials say he’s already on the moon.

“She’s thrilled to bits,” said Eduard HabsburgHungarian ambassador of the Holy See, who Spanish-Hungarian dictionary gifted to Pope, part of his running joke about how it takes an eternity to learn a language. He said that when Francis last left, “We thought that was it!”

Instead, Francis is back, and Hungary has pulled out all the stops to welcome him.

“I don’t know how the Vatican is reading this or why they decided to do this,” said Stefano Bottoni, a historian at the University of Florence who lives in Budapest. “But in Hungary, the papal visit has become an extravaganza for the regime.”

Locals agreed that Mr Orban would not let this opportunity pass him by.

“He’ll use it,” said Christoph Polgar, 25, as he walked past St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest after a fencing class on Thursday. He said that Francis was particularly popular with the older generation of Catholics, on whom Mr. Orban relied for political support, and that “Orban builds on that and he does it perfectly.”

In 2021, when Francis suggested he might not meet Mr. Orban on his way to a longer stay in Slovakia, Mr. Orban’s allies in the news media, where his party holds much sway, criticized Francis for humiliating Hungary. for “behaving in a manner” anti-Christian, and for “causing extraordinary harm to the Christian world”.

During that visit, Francis had only cordial words in his official meeting with Orban, whose portrayal of himself as a defender of Christian values ​​in Europe against foreign immigrants has made him a hero to hard-right conservatives. Have given. But he also indirectly sent a message to Mr. Orban that God was not a strongman who silences enemies and that religious roots, while important to a country, called for it to “open its arms to all” and Also allows for expansion.

“Your country is a place where other populations have lived together for a long time,” Francis said during a meeting with Hungarian bishops, which analysts say was largely co-opted by Mr. Orban’s government. Has been done and it has a ritual of showering. Church with money.

For years, Mr. Orban’s government has tried to blur differences between Hungary and the Holy See, emphasizing their areas of agreement, including Mr. Orban’s establishment of a secretary of state to aid persecuted Christians and defense of the traditional family. Has been given. Mr. Habsburg, the ambassador, said the Vatican had made a back-channel request for Hungary to more publicly support the Holy See and its views on human sexuality and gender roles in multilateral settings.

But Hungarian officials argue that as much as the Pope and Orban are divided on the issue of migration, they are in alignment when it comes to their desire for peace in Ukraine.

In the early months of the war, Francis, reflecting the Vatican’s inclination to remain neutral to protect Catholics around the world and to better preserve the church’s chances of playing a constructive role in possible peace talks, called out Russia’s aggression. failed to do.

But amid criticism from Ukrainian leaders and questions rising about his legacy, Francis spoke out more clearly against the invasion, saying in August that the Russian Federation started a war He was “morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, disgusting and sacrilegious.”

that too in november Russia’s invasion of Ukraine compared to the Holodomor genocide In the 1930s, the policies of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin led to a severe famine in Ukraine.

Mr. Orban, on the other hand, has refused to supply arms to Kiev and has threatened to veto EU sanctions against Moscow. Hungary still gets most of its gas from Russia and it blocked efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill, Mr Putin’s religious patron and supporter, to impose sanctions that Francis once warned against. Not to “turn himself into Putin’s altar boy”.

Yet Mr. Orban, increasingly isolated and eager to display a papal seal of approval, has sought to portray himself and the pope on the same page as he calls for a cease-fire and peace talks. Have called. During a speech in February he argued that he was alone in Europe in calling for peace in Ukraine.

“So it looks like they have the same idea,” said Mr. Habsburg, who called them “the only two voices in Europe that have said it this way.”

Analysts say it is simply Mr Orban doing what he does best: seeing a political opening and seizing it.

“Orban is the king of the opportunists,” said Matteo Zola, journalist and editor of East Journal, an online newspaper focused on Central and Eastern Europe. “Hungary wants to present itself as the center around which a dialogue between Moscow and Europe or the West could be imagined. And the Pope’s visit legitimizes this role.”

But for Mr. Orban, he said, “it’s a whole lot of capital to spend inside the country.”

The Vatican has instead sought to frame the issue as the Pope’s desire to be closer to the people of Ukraine.

“We will be a few hundred kilometers from the border with Ukraine,” Vatican spokesman Mr. Bruni told reporters ahead of the visit. “We can certainly expect words about his pain over this struggle and his search for peace.”

Francis will meet on Saturday with some Ukrainian refugees who have remained in Hungary, though millions have passed through the country since the start of the Russian invasion. When Mr Orban visited the Vatican last year for his first official state visit, his government believed Francis was key to the official visit, thanking the pope for accepting the refugees.

Francis’ meeting with the refugees will give him an opportunity to ease the plight of migrants in Europe, especially as more people are drowning while crossing the Mediterranean as the weather warms.

But few expected any Bernburners, and public opinion, including Catholics, is so supportive of Mr Orban on the migrant issue that even if Francis mounted a challenge, analysts doubted it would make any difference. Will not have to

Historian Mr. Botoni said, “Whatever he says on emigration has zero weight.” “In this moment, zero.”

Mr Polgar, a fencing student, said if Francis criticized Mr Orban, the prime minister would “ignore” it so as not to be made to give oxygen. “Unless Francis creates an opposition party, he won’t change much.”

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