Pope in Hungary, war-dominated visit to neighboring Ukraine

The Pope in Hungary, a war-dominated visit to neighboring Ukraine


Pope Francis arrived in Hungary on Friday for a three-day visit, where he is to meet Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who like him is calling for peace in Ukraine without cutting ties with Moscow. 

The Argentinian Jesuit, 86, landed shortly before 10 a.m. (8 a.m. GMT) in the capital Budapest. He will spend his entire stay there due to his fragile health, which will be observed closely, one month after his hospitalization.

The pope had already made a seven-hour stopover in Budapest in September 2021, during which he promised to return to this central European country neighboring Ukraine which has 9.7 million inhabitants, some 39% of whom Catholics according to the latest figures dating from 2011.

In the morning, Jorge Bergoglio will be received at the presidential palace by President Katalin Novak – who told the media that she had learned Spanish to be able to converse with him – then will meet Viktor Orban, in power since 2010.

Despite common visions – especially on the family – the positions of the two men diverge on various subjects. Mr. Orban is committed to promoting a “Christian civilization” undermined by decades of communism, thus justifying an anti-migrant policy that has been decried many times.

A fervent defender of the rights of refugees, the pope, he continues to plead for a benevolent reception and a fair distribution within the European Union.

Aware of this delicate diplomatic game, Francis took care to present himself as “friend and brother of all”, while the authorities insisted on the spiritual nature of this visit, assuring that it was not a “political event”.

At midday, the pope will deliver a much-awaited first speech to the authorities and the diplomatic corps. He could renew his countless calls for peace in neighboring Ukraine, a conflict that should become the major theme of his visit.

“A lot of strength”

If the Pope condemns the “aggression” of “martyred” Ukraine, Viktor Orban is more ambiguous: he refrains from criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and refuses to send arms to Kyiv.

According to Zoltan Kiszelly, director of the pro-government think tank Szazadveg, the Hungarian Prime Minister will however take care “to insist on common visions” and could “benefit from this visit on the internal level”.

On Friday afternoon, the pope will meet local clergy at St. Stephen's Basilica, in front of which giant screens and chairs have been set up, while heavy security has been deployed in the city of 1.7 million people. inhabitants crossing the Danube.

“It is wonderful that the pope is returning to Hungary so soon after his last trip,” Annamaria Szentesi, a 32-year-old Hungarian, told AFP. “I hope his main message will be that of peace in the world, his words have a lot of force.”

For his 41st international trip since his election in 2013, the Bishop of Rome will also meet poor people, young people, representatives of the university and cultural sector and will preside over an open-air mass on Sunday.

Despite his advanced age and his knee pain, which forced him to move around with a cane or wheelchair, the head of the Catholic Church continues to travel. He is the second pope to visit Hungary, after visits by John Paul II in 1991 and 1996.