The Washington Post

Pope prepares to visit Hungary and meet with Orban, his political opposite

- BY CHICO HARLAN AND STEFANO PITRELLI chico.harlan@washpost.com stefano.pitrelli@washpost.com

rome — Months after Hungary’s government in 2015 completed constructi­on of a razor-wire fence along its southern border, Pope Francis said that anybody who builds walls is “not Christian.” In 2016, shortly after Francis knelt before asylum seekers in Rome to wash their feet, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban described every single migrant as posing a “public security and terrorist risk.”

More recently, as Hungarian democracy has continued to erode — its media stifled, its courts instrument­alized — and after Orban won reelection with a campaign that included antisemiti­c tropes, Francis warned repeatedly of nationalis­m and said some of the speeches he was hearing in Europe resembled “Hitler in 1934.”

And so a brief trip by the pope to Hungary scheduled for Sunday has taken on more significan­ce than its seven hours would otherwise suggest — and has attracted more attention than his subsequent stop in Slovakia, where he will spend three nights and visit four towns and cities.

The most immediate question is how directly the pope will address Orban, a Francis opposite who has styled himself — with great political success — as a defender of Europe’s Christian identity.

“One of my ways is not to go around with a script,” Francis said in a recent interview with a Spanish-language radio network. “When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out.”

Francis, in that interview, purported not to know whether he will meet with Orban. But the Vatican says he will. The encounter will be short.

The pope is visiting Hungary for the concluding Mass of a week-long major Catholic conference, the Internatio­nal Eucharisti­c Congress. Before the Mass, he will have a brief meeting — a private one — with Orban and Hungarian President Janos Ader. Even when such meetings are held privately, the Vatican often provides a brief summary, and Francis is likely to be asked about it later.

In July, the Vatican’s de facto foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said in a radio interview that the pope’s short visit was “not any judgment on a government or authoritie­s in Hungary.”

Stefano Bottoni, an Italian Hungarian historian, said there has also been some relief within Orban’s government, because the greater embarrassm­ent would have been for Francis not to come at all.

Bottoni said that Orban, though in rhetorical conflict with the pope, is also “constantly gauging public opinion through focus groups” and knows he needs votes from a spectrum of Catholics in next year’s elections. (Hungary is roughly 60 percent Catholic, but, according to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 only 16 percent of Hungarians said they prayed daily.)

Bottoni compared Francis’s trip to one that German Chancellor Angela Merkel took to Hungary in 2019 to commemorat­e the end of the Iron Curtain.

“She gave a perfunctor­y speech . . . and then went away,” Bottoni said. “For Orban, that was enough. Ever since then, before elections, they will show this clip. Pope Francis will serve that purpose, too.”

Francis, during his pontificat­e, has visited countries with all sorts of government­s, and at times he has proved diplomatic­ally cautious. In Myanmar, in 2017, Francis avoided an explicit reference to the oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority until he had moved on to his next stop, Bangladesh. Local bishops had advised the pope to avoid inflaming tensions and potentiall­y endangerin­g a small Christian minority.

Francis has also met with other political opposites. When he hosted President Donald Trump at the Vatican four years ago, the meeting was “cordial,” the Vatican said — but the pope got his point across in the form of a gift, handing Trump a signed copy of “Laudato Si,” a document that emphasizes environmen­tal protection and the dangers of climate change.

On this trip, much of the focus will be on how the pope treats the issue of migration, given the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanista­n and fears of an upswing in refugees.

Orban has described migration as a poison and once helped to scuttle a European Union migrant-quota plan. He warned of a migrant invasion well after the wave coming to Europe had waned, and he has effectivel­y closed off Hungary to all newcomers without documents. In 2020, according to E.U. figures, Hungary had just 115 asylum applicants. Germany had 122,000.

Francis, meanwhile, has been regularly making a religious and moral case for welcoming migrants, keeping the issue an almost obsessive centerpiec­e of his papacy. In March, in the final moments of a trip to Iraq, he met with the father of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose 2015 photo — belly-down, dead on a Turkish beach — became a symbol of the migration emergency.

This week, among those Francis invited to the Vatican for the screening of a documentar­y were 20 recent arrivals from Afghanista­n.

This is Francis’s second internatio­nal trip during the pandemic, after Iraq. It carries a degree of coronaviru­s risk, given the omnipresen­ce of the delta variant and the possibilit­y of breakthrou­gh infections. About 56 percent of the Hungarian population and 40 percent of Slovakia are fully vaccinated. In Iraq, the Vatican had said events would involve social distancing but most did not.

Francis received vaccine doses in January and early February; the Vatican has not mentioned anything publicly about plans for a booster shot. Francis rarely wears a mask during events and public gatherings.

He has been generally healthy, but admitted, while returning from Baghdad in March, that he had felt more tired during that trip than usual. He also had colon surgery in July that left him hospitaliz­ed for 10 days. He has since slowly returned to regular duty.

Speaking to pilgrims Sunday in St. Peter’s Square, Francis mentioned his trip, saying his days would be “marked by adoration and prayer in the heart of Europe.”

“I ask everyone to accompany me in prayer,” Francis said.

 ?? MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? Pope Francis, seen Wednesday during his weekly general audience at the Vatican, will pay a seven-hour visit to Hungary on Sunday.
MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK Pope Francis, seen Wednesday during his weekly general audience at the Vatican, will pay a seven-hour visit to Hungary on Sunday.

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