Pope Francis gently prods anti-immigrant leader on visit to Hungary

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: Pope Francis urges openness to migrants during Central Europe tour

Bratislava, Slovakia — Pope Francis carefully rebuked the anti-migrant politics of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the first day of a papal visit to Central Europe. Speaking at an outdoor Mass in Budapest on Sunday, the pontiff called on Hungarians to “extend their arms to everyone,” in a veiled reference to the nationalist government’s closed-door policy on immigration. 

The Mass, held before tens of thousands of people in the capital’s Hero’s Square, came moments after an hour-long meeting between Francis and the prime minister. The two men are fierce opponents on the topic of immigration. 

Pope Francis is an outspoken champion of refugees, once even bringing 12 Syrians home with him to Rome from a trip to Greece in 2016. Prime Minister Orban, on the other hand, has famously built a fence in Hungary to keep migrants out. 

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At the meeting on Sunday, according to state media, Orban even handed the Pope a provocative gift: A copy of a letter from a 13th-century Hungarian king to then-Pope Innocent IV, asking for Rome’s help to defeat an onslaught of foreign invaders — an apparent reference to migrants in the 21st century. 

Shortly thereafter, Orban took to Facebook, posting: “I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish.”

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Then, after spending a scant seven hours in Hungary, the pope left. It was perceived as a slight, given that he’s spending three days in neighboring Slovakia. 

But Francis’ message of openness to outsiders continued in the Slovak capital of Bratislava on Monday.

At a meeting with the country’s political and civic leaders, he urged Slovaks to take special care of the vulnerable and said that no one should be stigmatized or suffer discrimination.  

Pope Slovakia
Pope Francis waves as he leaves the Cathedral of Saint Martin, in Bratislava, Slovakia, September 13, 2021.

Petr David Josek/AP

“Our Christian way of looking at others refuses to see them as a burden or a problem, but rather as brothers and sisters to be helped and protected,” he said. “Even as battles for supremacy are waged on various fronts, may this country reaffirm its message of integration and peace.”  

Despite a demanding schedule on his visit to the two countries, the 84-year-old pontiff has appeared energetic. It is his first trip since recovering from colon surgery this summer.