Pope Francis on Saturday, April 29, warned against “the evils of indifference” while greeting refugees on the second day of a visit to Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has adopted a tough stance against immigration.
Around 600 refugees — mostly from Ukraine — and poor people gathered at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Budapest to listen to the pope. About a thousand more gathered outside.
After hearing accounts of their lives, including that of Oleg Yakovlev, a father-of-five who fled Ukraine, the pope thanked Hungary “for having welcomed –- not only with generosity but also with enthusiasm –- so many refugees from Ukraine”.
Orban’s government — in a departure from its usual anti-refugee position — has welcomed those fleeing the war in neighbouring Ukraine.
But activists say there is barely a support system in place. Orban’s insistence on maintaining ties with Moscow has also alienated Ukrainians.
The pope stressed the need to show “compassion toward all.”
He urged people to “help to uproot the evils of indifference and selfishness from society, from our cities and the places where we live, and to rekindle hope for a new, more just and fraternal world.”
On Friday, the 86-year-old Argentine stressed “the need for openness towards others”, warning against “withdrawing into oneself” in a speech to Orban and other government officials.
A Ukrainian woman outside the church, who only gave her name as Elena, on Saturday told AFP that she hoped to see the pope “who is a strong advocate of peace.”
‘Demolished’ refugee support
“We have no problems here, but obviously when you are waiting to go back, you don’t immerse yourself too deeply,” the 43-year-old dancer from north of Kyiv said.
Since Russia invaded its neighbour more than a year ago, more than two million Ukrainians have crossed into Hungary, but just 35,000 have applied for the EU’s temporary protection status in the country.
That’s far fewer than in other countries just west of Ukraine.
Within the EU, Orban is an exception in refusing to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin by name over the invasion of Ukraine.
He is also refusing to send military aid to Ukraine and has blasted EU sanctions against Russia.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) rights group says Ukrainians face a “demolished” refugee support system.
Since 2020, after the EU forced Budapest to close so-called border transit zones that Brussels called “detention camps”, Budapest only accepts asylum seekers’ applications at Hungarian embassies abroad.
This has slowed the number of asylum seekers to a trickle.
On Sunday, the pope will preside over an open-air mass at 9:30 am (0730 GMT) in Budapest that thousands of worshippers are expected to attend as the crowning event of his three days in Hungary.
It is Francis’ 41st international trip since becoming pope in 2013 and his first abroad after spending three nights in hospital with bronchitis last month, fuelling concerns about his long-term health.
‘Closing ourselves off’
Despite persistent knee pain forcing him to move around in a wheelchair, the pope appeared to be in shape.
On Saturday, around 11,000 young people treated him to a rock-star welcome at a stadium concert where he was given a Rubik’s cube, a Hungarian invention, as one of many gifts.
University student Maria Varga, 22, said she hoped more Hungarians would follow the pope’s teachings.
“We are far too ready to close ourselves off and not help people who are fleeing war and trouble,” she told AFP.
But high school student Tamas Banhidi, 18, cautioned that not all the pope’s views were popular, including on migration.
“We want to keep Hungary a Christian and conservative country,” he told AFP.
Earlier Saturday, Francis spoke for about 20 minutes to Hilarion, the bishop and former head of the Russian church’s department for external relations.
Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill ousted Hilarion, while the pope’s and Kirill’s relationship has soured over the latter’s strong support for Moscow.
Francis last visited Hungary — where 39 percent of the 9.7-million population are Catholic — briefly in 2021.
John Paul II was the first pope to visit Hungary, making trips in 1991 and 1996.