Francis and Hungary’s President Katalin Novak get up after a welcoming ceremony at Sandor Palace in Budapest on April 28, 2023, as the Pope is visiting Hungary for his second time in less than two years. The Pope will meet refugees, believers, students, church and state leaders during his tree-day trip and will celebrate a holy mass in front of the parliament building, at the Kossuth Square of Budapest on Sunday morning, April 30, 2023. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)
(AFP) – Pope Francis arrived in Hungary Friday for a three-day visit likely to be dominated by the war in Ukraine and his meeting with nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose views often clash with his own.
The 86-year-old Argentine pontiff will only stay in the capital Budapest during his trip, due to his fragile health a month after being hospitalised for bronchitis.
The pope arrived just before 10:00 am (0800 GMT) in the Hungarian capital, where key roads have been blocked for days as part of a major security operation surrounding the visit.
“I am happy… the world’s attention is on Hungary. This country has a slightly negative image… perhaps it will be a little positive now,” said Laszlo Temesi, a retired journalist who was among those lining the streets to try to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
Annamaria Szentesi, a 32-year-old, told AFP that it was “wonderful” that the pontiff was coming back to Hungary after a brief stop-over in 2021.
“I hope his main message will be one of peace in the world. His words have a lot of power,” Szentesi said.
After being received at the presidential palace by President Katalin Novak — who told local media she was brushing up on her Spanish ahead of the visit — Francis will meet with Orban.
“In troubled times like ours, it is essential to remember what keeps us together, and faith is the foundation upon which we can build a stable future,” Orban wrote on Twitter.
– Ukraine peace talks –
In power since 2010, the Hungarian premier regularly espouses anti-migration rhetoric to defend a “Christian Europe”.
This is at odds with the pontiff’s more welcoming stance towards those fleeing poverty or conflict zones.
On the war in Ukraine, both men have called for peace talks with Orban an exception in the EU in insisting to maintain ties with Moscow.
Zoltan Kiszelly, the head of pro-government thinktank Szazadveg, said Orban will use the pope‘s visit to emphasise shared “traditional values around family and God”.
“Domestically, Orban can profit from this visit,” Kiszelly said.
During an audience last year at the Vatican, Francis thanked Orban — who comes from a Calvinist background — for welcoming Ukrainians fleeing the war across the border.
Francis’ first speech during this visit to Hungary — where 39 percent of the population is Catholic — will be on Friday afternoon when he addresses authorities, diplomats and members of civil society.
On Sunday, the pontiff said his visit would be made “as a pilgrim, friend and brother of all”, and government authorities in Hungary stressed that his visit was “not a political event”.
– Open air mass –
On Friday afternoon, the pope will meet local bishops and clergy at St Stephen’s Basilica, where giant screens set up in the square will transmit his speech live to the public.
While in Budapest, Francis will as usual be accompanied by his doctor.
Last month he spent three nights in hospital with bronchitis, fuelling concerns about his long-term health and future as head of the worldwide Catholic Church.
On his 41st international trip since becoming pope in 2013, Francis plans to meet young people, local church members and representatives of the academic and cultural sectors, and will hold an open-air mass on Sunday.
On Saturday, the pope will also meet with Ukrainian refugees.
In a society where family and gender rights are hot political issues, pro-Orban media has criticised the pope in the past for being too favourable to migrants and the LGBTQ community.
Francis is the second pope to visit Hungary, after John Paul II made trips in 1991 and 1996.
© Agence France-Presse