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Orban’s gift to Pope Francis highlights opposing views on migration and diversity


Budapest, Hungary – The much-anticipated visit of Pope Francis to Hungary, on Sunday, highlighted stark differences between the Holy Father’s views and the stance of the Hungarian government, particularly on the issues of diversity and migration.

Pope Francis delivers plea for fraternity and diversity during Hungary visit

Visiting Budapest for a seven-hour stop before traveling to neighbouring Slovakia, Pope Francis met on Sunday with the country’s political leaders, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Janos Ader, before presiding over the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, on Heroes’ Square.

During the open-air mass, which according to organizers gathered up to 100,000 people, the Argentinian pope urged the crowd of faithful to be “open” and “considerate” in line with the Christian spirit of tolerance and mutual respect for people from different cultures. “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 towards everyone,” he said.

Warning of the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe, Francis, 84, also urged Christians, Jews and people of other faiths to be fraternal with one another, “so that outbursts of hatred that would destroy fraternity will never prevail”.

Talking to the country’s bishops, Pope Francis further argued that “attachment to one’s own identity must never become a motive of hostility and contempt for others, but rather an aid to dialogue with different cultures.”

“In the face of cultural, ethnic, political and religious diversity, we can either retreat into a rigid defense of our supposed identity, or become open to encountering others and cultivating together the dream of a fraternal society,” he added.

Opposing views in the spotlight

Some saw the pope’s remarks as a veiled criticism of Orban’s anti-migrant policies, which have long clashed with Francis’ repeated pleas for greater tolerance and his criticism of “national populism”, which Orban’s Hungary is seen as a prime example of.

More broadly, his calls for Catholics to respect diversity in all its forms has been perceived as a rebuke of Orban’s rule, which critics say has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn.

Following the announcement of the pope’s Central European tour, his first foreign trip since undergoing surgery in July, reports claimed the visit would not include a meeting with Orban due to the two men’s seemingly irreconcilable views, and over fears his visit would be instrumentalized by the Prime Minister, a self-declared defender of Christian values, ahead of key elections next spring.

These rumours were rapidly dismissed, although many still felt offended by the brevity of his trip in comparison with Slovakia, where he has now embarked on an official state visit of three days.

Church officials insisted both visits were of a fundamentally different nature, but some sources have alleged that the Vatican turned down offers for a longer stay in Hungary.

Orban offers Pope symbolically charged gift

Pope Francis and Orban eventually did meet yesterday for a 40-minute meeting spent in a “cordial atmosphere”, according to Vatican officials. Even though migration was not on the official agenda of the meeting, the Hungarian government also did not miss the opportunity to get its message across.

On Facebook, PM Orban wrote “I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish”, hinting to his oft-repeated message that Christian civilization in Europe was under threat of destruction, both from outside (migration) and inside forces (“leftist” liberal values).

But what appeared as the most loaded symbol was the gift offered to Pope Francis: a copy of a 1243 letter from Hungarian King Bela IV, asking then Pope Innocent IV for help and assistance in resisting the Mongol invasion of Hungary and Europe.

“There are many similarities between the situation at that time and today… we should learn from history,” Balazs Orban, a deputy minister for the PM, wrote on his Facebook page to explain the present’s significance.

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.