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Pope Francis, during visit, urges Viktor Orban’s Hungary to ‘extend its arms toward everyone’

Pope Francis met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for less than an hour during a quick trip to Budapest on Sept. 12. (Video: Reuters)

After meeting privately on Sunday with Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the far-right autocrat who has championed a vision of a closed-door Europe, Pope Francis took the stage in front of tens of thousands and called on the country to “extend its arms toward everyone.”

“My wish is that you be like that: grounded and open, rooted and considerate,” Francis said during an outdoor Mass, marking his only day in Hungary before he continues to Slovakia.

Francis’s remarks amounted to a careful but clear critique of Hungary’s anti-migrant policies under Orban, the three-term prime minister who has called migration a “poison.” The pope’s comments came at the tail end of his seven-hour trip to Budapest, where much of the attention had centered on how Francis would address a leader who is his political opposite.

At the Mass, Francis did not explicitly mention migrants or refugees but instead used religious terms to make a point about being welcoming.

“The cross urges us to keep our roots firm, but without defensiveness; to draw from the wellsprings, opening ourselves to the thirst of the men and women of our time,” he said.

For the pope, the meeting with Orban had been an unavoidable matter of protocol: He was coming to Budapest to celebrate the closing Mass of a major Catholic congress and couldn’t bypass the country’s political leaders. For Orban, the meeting was a balancing act — welcoming a pope with a diverging vision for Europe, while also showing respect as a way to retain Catholic voting support.

The face-to-face encounter was cautiously staged and had some awkward elements. As Francis arrived at a museum that was the site of the meeting, Vatican cameras cut away. After the meeting concluded about 40 minutes later, Orban quickly shared a photo of himself talking with the pope and said he had asked Francis “not to let Christian Hungary perish.” The Vatican simply said the meeting, which also included Hungarian President Janos Ader, had been cordial, touching on such issues as the Hungarian church, the environment, and the “protection and promotion of the family.”

There was no mention of migration, an issue on which Francis and Orban stand perhaps the furthest apart.

Throughout his papacy, Francis has regularly described the need to welcome migrants as a religious and moral imperative, occasionally punctuating his pleas with dramatic action: In 2016, at the height of Europe’s migration crisis, he traveled to a Greek island and returned with 12 Syrian asylum seekers on the papal plane. But Francis’s welcoming message has not proved politically popular in Europe, and over the years, Orban’s approach has steadily gained traction. The European Union has controversially fortified ties with other countries — namely Libya and Turkey — as a way to limit the number of asylum seekers reaching E.U. soil.

Carlo Fidanza, a member of the European Parliament from the far-right Brothers of Italy party, argued that Orban’s vision has become the “shared viewpoint of 27 [E.U.] governments.”

“It’s a matter of common sense and pragmatism born out of the experience of 2015,” Fidanza said.

Over the coming days, Francis will be making a full state visit to Slovakia, spending three nights there. Some Vatican watchers had interpreted the lopsidedness of the trip as an intentional slight to Hungary. The Vatican, in the run-up to the trip, strained to explain that Francis was visiting Budapest for a single religious event, the International Eucharistic Congress, and then continuing on for the main part of his journey. Speaking with reporters, the Rev. Kornél Fábry, the general secretary of the congress, said that many Hungarians were initially “angry” about the brevity of the trip but later came around. Fabry compared it to an invitation to dinner, not a sleep­over.

While on the ground in Budapest, Francis also met with Hungary’s bishops, as well as representatives from other religions, including Judaism. In the first of those meetings, with the Catholic bishops, he quoted the Gospel — “Love each other as I have loved you” — in a reference to migration. Later, with the broader group of religious representatives, he warned that the threat of antisemitism is “still lurking in Europe and elsewhere.”

“This is a fuse that must not be allowed to burn,” Francis said.

At the Mass, his final event in Budapest, the pope spoke before tens of thousands of people seated across the city’s vast Heroes’ Square. The event was held outdoors in a nod to coronavirus transmission concerns, though there was no social distancing. During the pontiff’s earlier event with religious leaders, held indoors, most of the attendees were not wearing masks.

This is Francis’s second trip during the pandemic, following a four-day March trip to Iraq, and his first since undergoing major colon surgery in July. According to accounts from journalists aboard the papal plane, Francis appeared in good spirits during the pre-sunrise flight from Rome. He also tried to preserve his energy later in the day. When addressing the religious leaders, he remained seated and jokingly asked forgiveness for doing so.

“I am not 15 years old,” he said.

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.