Pope Francis expressed gratitude to Hungarians on Saturday for their acceptance of Ukrainian refugees and called on them to aid those in need.
He appealed for a culture of charity in a country where the prime minister has justified hard-line anti-immigration policies by claiming that migration poses a threat to Europe’s Christian culture.
On his second day in Hungary, the Pope met with refugees and impoverished individuals at St. Elizabeth’s Church. The church is named after a Hungarian princess who gave up her riches to devote herself to the poor, following the example of the Pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
Among the refugees were some who had fled to Hungary from neighboring Ukraine, seeking safety from the conflict with Russia.
Immediately following this, Francis had a “cordial” meeting with Metropolitan Hilarion, the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, at the Holy See’s embassy in Budapest.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the Kremlin in the Ukraine conflict has blocked a face-to-face meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The encounter between Francis and Kirill in Cuba in 2016 was the first between a pope and an Eastern Orthodox leader in many centuries.
Speaking at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Budapest, Francis reiterated that the Gospel instructs Christians to demonstrate love and compassion towards everyone, particularly those who are poor and suffering, and “even those who are not believers.”
He said, “The love that Jesus gives us and commands us to practice can help to uproot the evils of indifference and selfishness from society, from our cities and the places where we live indifference is a plague and to rekindle hope for a new, more just and fraternal world, where all can feel at home.”
Hungary’s nationalist government has imposed strict anti-immigration policies and refused to accept many asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country via its southern border, resulting in lengthy legal disputes with the European Union.
The conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has claimed that migration threatens to supplant Europe’s Christian culture. Orban, who has held office since 2010, has based numerous election campaigns on the dangers he alleges migrants and refugees pose to Hungarians.
However, while Orban’s administration has consistently rejected asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa, some 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing war in their country have found a welcoming environment. According to the United Nations, around 35,000 of these refugees remain in Hungary, having registered for temporary protection there.
Yet, monetary assistance for Ukrainian refugees has been inadequate. Fewer Ukrainians have opted to stay in Hungary than in any other Eastern European country apart from Belarus.
One who has opted to stay is Olesia Misiats, a nurse who worked in a Kyiv COVID-19 hospital when she fled with her mother and two daughters on February 24th of last year.
She initially went to the Netherlands, but financial constraints forced her to move to Hungary, where she has found an apartment and given birth to her third daughter, Mila, who was present in the pews with her mother and sister on Saturday.
Misiats stated, “Here it’s saf. I want to return home. There it’s my life, it was my life, but the war changed my life.”
There were few people of color in the pews, with the exception of artist and filmmaker Abouzar Soltani, a refugee from Iran who spent 553 days in one of Hungary’s transit zones with his son Armin after Hungarian authorities denied their asylum applications in 2018.
Soltani chose to remain in Hungary when the transit zones were shut down, and he is still there today.
Francis praised the Hungarian Catholic Church for its aid to those fleeing war and urged continued kindness toward anyone in need. He also heard from a Ukrainian family who had fled Russia’s invasion, traveling for days to reach Hungary after their hometown of Dnipro was bombed.
Oleg Yakovlev narrated how he had chosen to relocate to Hungary with his wife and five children because he had previously worked in the nation as a cook and had received a warm welcome. Yakovlev informed Francis,
“For us and our children, Hungary has been the start of a new life, of a new possibility… Here we were welcomed, and we found a new home.”
At the end of the event, a Hungarian Roma band played music for the Pope, earning him a standing ovation and cheers from the audience and a thumbs-up from Francis.
Francis began his Saturday by meeting with children with visual and physical disabilities. In the afternoon, he held a large public gathering in Hungary, a youth rally in the city’s sports stadium.
He will conclude his visit with an open-air Mass on Sunday and a speech at Budapest’s Pázmány Péter Catholic University.
Upon arriving in Hungary on Friday, the Pope urged Europe to rediscover its fundamental values of peaceful unity while condemning Russia’s “adolescent belligerence” in the neighboring Ukraine. AP