VATICAN CITY (AP) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday as the war in Ukraine and the millions of refugees he has created cast a shadow over two leaders who have long sought closer ties with Russia.
The 45-minute encounter was the second between Francis and Orban in less than a year, but couldn’t have been more different in tone. The pope made a brief stopover in Budapest to close a church congress, and the awkwardness of this September meeting was evident given his radically different view from that of the nationalist Orban on mass migration to Europe.
But on Thursday, a smiling and jovial Francis showed his appreciation for Hungary’s welcome to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. He gave Orban a medallion of St. Martin and said he chose it specifically to honor Hungary’s reception of refugees.
Hungary has become an important transit country for war refugees. More than 476,000 people have entered the country from Ukraine since the conflict began eight weeks ago, according to the UN refugee agency.
Francis and Obran laughed often during Thursday’s encounter. When it was time for them to go their separate ways, the pope said to the prime minister in English: “God bless you, your family and Hungary.” Orban replied, “Your Holiness, we are waiting for you,” an apparent reference to Francis’ plans to return to Hungary for a pastoral visit in the future.
While Orban’s government has adopted anti-immigration policies in the past, it has said it will welcome anyone fleeing Ukraine and provide them with food, housing and the opportunity to work. This contrasts with the last wave of refugees in Europe.
When more than a million people, mostly from Iraq and Syria, arrived in the European Union in 2015, Orban ordered the construction of a barbed wire fence along Hungary’s southern border and put in set up legal roadblocks for asylum seekers.
Orban’s visit to the Vatican was his first trip abroad since he and his right-wing Fidesz party won Hungary National election on April 3, and the destination represented a break with what has become its tradition following past elections.
Soon to begin his fourth consecutive term, Orban – the EU’s longest-serving leader – traveled to the Polish capital, Warsaw, to visit allies after Hungary’s 2010, 2014 and 2018 elections.
Poland is Hungary’s strongest ally in the EU, and the governments of both countries have supported each other in their respective battles with the bloc over allegations that their populist governments have eroded judicial independence, media freedom and the rule of law.
But the war in Ukraine has tested the warm relationship between Budapest and Warsaw, revealing flaws caused by different approaches to Moscow.
Poland, which has traditionally viewed Russia as a major security threat, has been one of the most active players in Europe in pushing for sanctions against Moscow and providing military aid to Ukraine.
Orban has long had close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and in recent weeks has refused to supply arms to Ukraine or allow their transfer across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. The Hungarian government has also lobbied hard against widening EU sanctions to include a ban on imports of Russian energy, on which Hungary depends.
Francis, for his part, has long sought to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2016, he became the first millennial pope to meet with the head of the church, Russian Patriarch Kirill.
Francis first offered a moderate criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, maintaining Vatican diplomatic tradition. But he has more and more outrage expressed on what he called a “sacrilegious” war and the creation of millions of Ukrainian refugees, while refraining from calling Russia or Putin by name.
However, François always tries to keep open a way of dialogue with Kirill. They spoke via video call last month, and it was reported that they could meet face to face in Jerusalem in June.
Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary.
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