Pope Francis met Hungary’s anti-migration Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Sunday before calling on pilgrims to be “open” and “considerate” at an open-air Mass in Budapest.
The head of 1.3 billion Catholics has often urged help for the marginalised and those of all religions fleeing war and poverty, in contrast to Orban who styles himself as a defender of “Christian Europe” from immigrants.
The pope told tens of thousands thronging the vast Heroes’ Square in Budapest that he wanted them to be “grounded and open, rooted and considerate”.
Thousands more crowded a nearby main boulevard, along which screens and loudspeakers had been set up, while others watched from nearby balconies and other buildings.
“I think the pope never says anything without reason. His words are well chosen and carry a subtle message,” Zsuzsanna Pusztai, a 75-year-old retiree, told AFP.
The pope, in Hungary to close the International Eucharistic Congress, met Orban and other senior politicians behind closed doors in Budapest’s Fine Arts Museum.
“I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish,” Orban posted on his Facebook page following a photo of the two shaking hands.
As a present, he gave the pontiff a copy of a letter written by King Bela IV to Pope Innocent IV in 1250 asking for help against Mongol warriors who threatened Christian Hungary.
The Vatican described the meeting as “cordial”, saying the men discussed environmental protection and the promotion of the family among other topics.
Over the past few years, there has been no love lost between Orban supporters in Hungary and the leader of the Catholic world.
Pro-Orban media and political figures have launched barbs at the pontiff calling him “anti-Christian” for his pro-refugee sentiments.
The pope spent just seven hours in Hungary before flying off to Slovakia for a trip that lasts four days in total.
The Argentine regularly reminds “old Europe” that its culture and society was built on waves of new arrivals.
Earlier in the day, he told Hungarian bishops that various ethnic and religious groups had “transformed this country into a multicultural environment”, presenting a “great opportunity”.
In contrast, Orban’s signature crusade against migration has included border fences and detention camps for asylum-seekers.
Orban’s supporters point instead to state-funded aid agency “Hungary Helps” which works to rebuild churches and schools in war-torn Syria, and sends doctors to Africa.
Orban’s critics, however, accuse him of using Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism and a sword to attack opponents while targeting vulnerable minorities like migrants.
Days before the pope’s arrival posters appeared on the streets of the Hungarian capital — where the city council is controlled by the anti-Orban opposition — reading “Budapest welcomes the Holy Father” and showing his quotes including pleas for solidarity and tolerance towards minorities.
It is the first papal trip to Hungary since Pope John Paul II in 1996.
The 84-year-old pontiff’s 34th foreign trip comes two months after a colon operation that required a general anaesthetic and a 10-day convalescence in hospital.
Meeting Christian and Jewish leaders earlier in the day, Pope Francis warned of “the threat of antisemitism still lurking in Europe and elsewhere”.
During that speech he remained seated, apologising that “I’m not 15″.
Hungary’s 100,000-strong Jewish community is one the largest in Central Europe.
But Orban has regularly been accused of running anti-Semitic campaigns with posters depicting Hungary-born financier George Soros as a puppet master controlling the EU’s migration policy.
Pro-Orban media has even described the pontiff as the “Soros Pope” for his support for refugees.
(Written by Catherine Marciano/Peter Murphy)