Pope Returns to Hungary, to Delight of Viktor Orban

BUDAPEST — Pope Francis, who has made welcoming migrants, embracing minorities and warning against nationalism central tenets of his pontificate, visited Budapest for the second time in less than two years on Friday. The trip gives Prime Minister Viktor Orban, perhaps Europe’s chief opponent of migrants, closest ally of Russia and most vocal critic of gay rights, a political gift he is sure not to waste.

During a 10-year pontificate in which Francis has met with multiple strongmen and dictators to both protect his flock and push for the protection of human rights and peace, he has rarely confronted his hosts, looking instead for areas of agreement, even if it risks legitimizing policies he finds abhorrent.

In Hungary, a dressing down is even less likely, as some analysts see the pope and Mr. Orban as having a similar desire for the war in Ukraine to end, and with Francis defining the trip in terms of Christian unity. He has called it an opportunity to “re-embrace” the Hungarian church in a visit to “the center of Europe, over which icy winds of war continue to blow, while the movements of so many people place urgent 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 with Mr. Orban but also with refugees and the poor, is completely different than a 2021 stopover he made in Budapest for a few hours to celebrate Mass at the end of a weeklong Catholic congress.

Pope Francis and Prime Minister Viktor Orban exchanging gifts during their meeting in Budapest in 2021.Credit…Vatican Media, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The tone of this trip is different,” said the Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, while others at the Vatican argued it should be considered his first official visit to the country. They have also suggested that the pope, 86 and making his 41st foreign visit — and the first since being rushed to the hospital last month — will make his disagreements with Mr. Orban clear and that he will not be used as a pawn.

But critics of Mr. Orban worry that no matter how noble Francis’ intentions may be, his trip is simply playing into Mr. Orban’s able political hands. Hungarian officials say he is already over the moon.

“He’s thrilled to bits,” said Eduard Habsburg, the Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See, who . He added that when Francis departed last time, “We thought that was it!”

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

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

Locals agreed that Mr. Orban would not let the opportunity pass.

“He will use this,” said Kristof Polgar, 25, who walked near St. Stephen’s Basilica’s in Budapest after a fencing class on Thursday. He said Francis was especially popular with the older generation of Catholics whom Mr. Orban relied on for political support, and that “Orban builds on it 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 great sway, insulted Francis for slighting Hungary, for “behaving in an anti-Christian manner, and for “causing extraordinary damage to the Christian world.”

Pope Francis during his visit to Slovakia two years agoCredit…Martin Divisek/EPA, via Shutterstock

During that trip, Francis had only cordial words in his official meeting with Mr. Orban, whose portrayal of himself as the defender of Christian values in Europe against foreign migrants has made him a hero for hard-right conservatives. Buthe also indirectly sent Mr. Orban a message that God was not a strongman who muzzles foes and that religious roots, while vital for a country, also allow it to open up and extend “its arms toward everyone.”

“Your country is a place in which people from other populations have long lived together,” Francis said at the time during a meeting with Hungary’s bishops, who analysts say have largely been co-opted by Mr. Orban’s government and its practice of showering the church with funds.

For years, Mr. Orban’s government has sought to blur the differences between Hungary and the Holy See by emphasizing their areas of agreement, including Mr. Orban’s establishment of a State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians and his defense of the traditional family. Mr. Habsburg, the ambassador, said the Vatican had even back-channeled requests for Hungary to be more publicly supportive of the Holy See and its views on human sexuality and gender roles in multilateral settings.

Eduard Habsburg, the Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican, in Rome.Credit…Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

But Hungarian officials argue that as much as the pope and Mr. 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 stay neutral to protect Catholics around the world and to better preserve the church’s chances of playing a constructive role in potential peace talks, failed to call out Russia’s aggression.

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

In November, he also compared Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the Holodomor genocide of the 1930s, when the policies of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin gave rise to a terrible famine in Ukraine.

Mr. Orban, on the other hand, has refused to supply Kyiv with weapons and threatened to veto European Union sanctions against Moscow. Hungary still receives much of its gas from Russia and it blocked efforts to sanction Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, Mr. Putin’s religious patron and apologist, whom Francis once warned not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”

A photograph provided by Russian state media showed President Vladimir V. Putin and Mr. Orban at a news conference last year. Credit…Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik

Yet Mr. Orban, increasingly isolated and eager to demonstrate a papal seal of approval, has sought to portray himself and the pope as on the same page because they have both called for cease-fires and peace negotiations. During a speech in February he argued that they were alone in Europe in calling for peace in Ukraine.

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

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

“Orban is the king of opportunists,” said Matteo Zola, a journalist and the editor of East Journal, an online newspaper focused on Central and Eastern Europe. “Hungary wants to show itself as the center around which one can imagine building a dialogue between Moscow and Europe or the West. And the pope’s trip legitimizes this role.”

But for Mr. Orban, he added, “it’s all 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’ll be just a few hundred kilometers from the border with Ukraine,” Mr. Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters before the trip. “We can certainly expect words about his pain over this conflict and the search for peace.”

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

A billboard welcoming Pope Francis ahead of his visit to Budapest.Credit…Marton Monus/Reuters

Francis’ meeting with the refugees will give him a chance to decry the plight of migrants in Europe, especially as many continue to drown crossing the Mediterranean as the weather grows warmer.

But few expect any barnburners, and public opinion, including among Catholics, is so supportive of Mr. Orban on the issue of migrants that even if Francis did throw down a gauntlet, analysts doubted it would matter.

“The weight of the things that he’ll say on migration is zero,” Mr. Bottoni, the historian, said. “In this moment, zero.”

Mr. Polgar, the fencing student, added that if Francis did criticize Mr. Orban, the prime minister would “ignore it” so as not to make it to give it oxygen. “Unless Francis forms an opposition party, he won’t change much.”

Jason Horowitz reported from Budapest, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.

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