Pope Francis heads to Hungary with Ukraine, migration top of the agenda

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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY, (Reuters) – Pope Francis leaves on Friday on a three-day trip to Hungary, where the war in Ukraine, migration and Europe’s Christian roots are expected to top the agenda in his public addresses and private talks with nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Francis is going there to keep a promise of an official visit after a stop of only seven hours to close a Church congress in Budapest in 2021 on his way to Slovakia left many feeling slighted.

It will be his first trip since he was hospitalised for bronchitis in March.

While its main purpose is meeting Hungarian Catholics, Francis acknowledged on Sunday that its content is affected by current events.

“It also will be a trip to the centre of Europe, which continues to be battered by frigid winds of war, while the movement of so many people has put urgent humanitarian issues on the agenda,” he said.

Orban has said Hungary and the Vatican are the only two European states that can be described as “pro-peace” regarding Ukraine.

Both Orban 59, and the pope, 86, have called for a ceasefire and negotiations to end the war and Francis has urged Ukraine to be open to dialogue with “aggressor” Russia, something Ukraine so far has ruled out.

Hungary, which supports a sovereign Ukraine but still has strong economic ties to Russia, has refused to send weapons to Ukraine. But while the pope has often called for a general ban on arms trafficking and reduction in weapons manufacturing, he has also said sending arms to Ukraine is morally acceptable if they are used only for self-defence.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, millions of refugees have fled through Hungary and moved to other countries. About 35,000 have applied for temporary protection status.


Orban and the pope differ widely on how to handle migration from the Middle East and Africa as well as on the importance of the European Union, with which Hungary has had many run-ins.

Francis believes migrants fleeing poverty should be welcomed and integrated because they can culturally enrich host countries and boost Europe’s dwindling populations. He believes that while countries have a right to protect their borders, migrants should be distributed throughout the EU.

Orban has refused to let Hungary be transformed into an “immigrant country” like he says others in Europe have become.

When Orban met the pope in 2021, he said he asked him “not to let Christian Hungary perish”. He gave the pope a gift that needed no interpretation: a facsimile of a letter that 13th century King Bela IV sent to Pope Innocent IV asking for help in fighting the Tartars.

“Orban sees himself as a protector of Christianity and is seeking a connection with the pope,” said Father Csaba Torok, who runs a parish in Esztergom, the historical seat of Catholicism in Hungary, as is a press officer of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Torok, who spoke to Vatican reporters on a video call last week, said Hungarian officials wanted the pope to visit other parts of the country but were told to limit the event to Budapest “because of the pope’s physical condition”.

Francis uses a cane and wheelchair because of a knee ailment.

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