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BUDAPEST – Pope Francis used his short stay in Budapest on Sunday to urge his bishops to embrace diversity and send a message to the country’s far-right anti-migrant leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, may God not is not a strong man who silences enemies and whose religious roots, although vital for a country, also allow him to open up and extend “his arms to everyone”.

The seven-hour visit, ostensibly a spiritual stopover to celebrate the closing Mass of a week-long international conference on the Eucharist, was Francis’s first international trip since he underwent major surgery this summer. He opened a four-day visit to neighboring Slovakia, and the disparity in time spent in the two countries prompted Hungarian prelates to push for a longer stay and Mr Orban’s allies to denounce the pope, who regularly criticizes “national populism”. for the perceived rebuff.

Mr Orban has presented himself as a defender of Christian Europe, and he has stepped up his relations with traditionalists in the Church, many of whom criticize Francis, ahead of the elections scheduled for April. Some in the Hungarian church feared that Mr. Orban was exploiting the Pope’s visit for electoral purposes. His government, they claim, has already essentially bought the independence and silence of the church by flooding it with millions of dollars in grants.

Sunday, François met for about 40 minutes Mr. Orban and other civil authorities in a gaping room of the Museum of Fine Arts. The Pope and his senior foreign policy officials were seated without a mask and at a considerable distance in front of Mr Orban and Hungarian President Janos Ader.

But Mr Orban quickly posted photos of his salvation to Francis on his Facebook page, writing that he had asked the Pope “not to let Christian Hungary perish.” Hungarian media, where Mr Orban’s government has great influence, splashed the image of the handshake on their homepages and reported that Mr Orban, who described the influx of migrants to Europe in 2015 of “invasion”, gave Francis a copy of a letter sent by a thirteenth-century Hungarian king to the then pope. In the letter, the king complained that appeals for help to the church against an invasion of Mongol armies had only ended in empty words.

The issue of migration was apparently not addressed at the meeting, according to the Vatican, but, as expected by some of his confidants, the Pope addressed the issue head-on during his subsequent meeting at the museum with a group of Hungarian bishops.

“Your country is a place where people from other populations have lived together for a long time,” he said. “Various ethnicities, minorities, religions and migrants have also transformed this country into a multicultural environment. “

Francois said that at first “diversity is always fearful because it endangers acquired security and disrupts acquired stability,” but added that it was a great opportunity to reach out to brotherhood. “In the face of cultural, ethnic, political and religious diversity,” the Pope said, “we can have two reactions: to lock ourselves in a rigid defense of our so-called identity, or to open ourselves up to encounter the other and cultivate the dream together. of a fraternal society.

He said he wanted the Hungarian church to build new bridges of dialogue, show, he said, its “true face” and become a “shining symbol for Hungary”.

In Francis’ public remarks – at the Place des Héros adjacent to the museum, which was overflowing with tens of thousands of people, including Mr Orban in the front row – the Pope appeared to address these issues, if in the Bible and religious terms.

Appearing strong after removing about 13 inches from his colon in early July, Francis, 84, explained how religious sentiment, which Mr. Orban permeates much of his political discourse, “not only invites us to be entrenched, it also raises and extends his arms towards everyone. He said that while it is important to keep the “roots firm” it is also important to do so “without being on the defensive”.

Francis also seemed to warn against the amalgamation of religion and politics.

“There is the side of God and the side of the world,” he said. “The difference is not between who is religious or not, but ultimately between the true God and the god of ‘self’. How distant is the God who reigns quietly on the cross from the false god whom we want to reign with power in order to silence our enemies.

On the first plane trip from Rome to Budapest, Francis told reporters he was happy to travel again, as the coronavirus pandemic and his own health issues had held him back in the Vatican. “If I’m alive, it’s because weeds never die,” he joked. In Budapest, he rode in the so-called popemobile along avenues crowded with worshipers waving flags. Hardly anyone in the streets, or the plaza, or the bars or restaurants in town, for that matter, wore masks, and they were all crammed together.

But Francis took breaks when he could. When, after his meeting with Mr. Orban, he met Christian and Jewish leaders, he explained that he had to give his speech seated because “I am not 15 years old anymore”.

In this speech, he expressed his distrust of “the ever-present threat of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere”, and he frequently used his familiar imagery of building bridges and destroying walls.

During the pope’s morning meetings, prelates and worshipers gathered in the square under white hats and umbrellas for protection from the sun, and five members of the late Habsburg Empire, which ruled Hungary and a great part of Europe for centuries, lined up on the side of a stage that had been laid out for Francis. Mr. Orban has appointed two ambassadors in the hope of improving access in Western Europe.

Eduard Habsburg, Mr Orban’s ambassador to the Holy See, who worked with the Vatican to extend the pope’s stay, said he met Francis at the airport. The Pope, he said, told him that Hungarian was the language of heaven because it takes forever to learn it. Mr Habsburg said he pretended not to know the joke and laughed.

“I didn’t feel like a dark atmosphere,” he said. “It was very cheerful, I enjoyed it a lot, and yes, for us, it’s amazing.”

Her father, Archduke Michael Habsburg-Lothringen, agreed with the rest of his family that the world unfairly treated Hungary as an outcast. He said he was deeply satisfied with Mr. Orban’s government, its handling of the migrant crisis and its defense of Hungary as a Christian nation. “I say we live in paradise,” he said. “Compared to neighboring countries even. I mean there is so much confusion.

But Hungary, under Mr. Orban, is increasingly isolated in Europe. And when Francis and Mr. Orban met, some of those who had gathered around Heroes’ Square sensed the tension and felt torn between the two.

“For me, Catholicism is one thing and politics is another,” said Eva Tamar, 34, from the Hungarian City of God. “I know what’s right in religion, but in real life and in politics, I don’t know who to follow. It’s hard.”

Others clearly knew which side they were on.

Balazs Nacy, 23, an ethnic Hungarian who was born and raised in neighboring Slovakia, said he believed the short stay in Hungary was “a political message”.

“He doesn’t really agree with the things that are going on here in Hungary and what Orban is doing here,” Nacy said. “They say it’s Christian politics, but I don’t think it’s Christianity what they’re doing here. The Pope sends a message.

Benjamin novak contributed reports.