Pope Francis, starting a trip to Hungary, on Friday (28 April) pointedly warned of the dangers of rising nationalism in Europe and told the Budapest government that accepting migrants along with the rest of the continent would be a true sign of Christianity.
In a hard-hitting speech to government leaders including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has had a series of run-ins with the European Union, Francis also urged a rejection of “self-referential forms of populism” and strictly nationalist interests.
He called for a return to the “European spirit” envisioned by the founders of modern Europe after World War Two, saying nations had to “look beyond national boundaries” .
Speaking on the day that Russia hit Ukraine with the first large-scale air strikes in nearly two months, Francis made another appeal for an end to the war there, calling for “creative efforts for peace” to drown out those he called “soloists of war”.
The three-day visit is his first trip since he was admitted to hospital for bronchitis in March.
Looking cheerful, Francis, who has a knee ailment, used a cane to walk by welcoming dignitaries and children in national dress at the airport. In recent arrivals, he used a wheelchair.
Asked by reporters about his health on the flight from Rome, the pope joked, saying “I’m still alive” and “stubborn weeds never die”.
He also walked with a cane to greet journalists individually in their section of the plane whereas on some recent trips he remained seated and the journalists went to him.
Francis is keeping a promise of an official visit to Hungary after a stop of only seven hours to close a Church congress in Budapest in 2021 on his way to Slovakia left many feeling slighted.
Orbán 59, and the pope have differing views on handling migration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, with Francis believing migrants fleeing poverty should be welcomed.
Orbán, whose government built a steel fence on the border with Serbia to keep out migrants, has refused to let Hungary be transformed into an “immigrant country” like he says others in Europe have become.
He asked Francis in 2021, during the pope’s last visit, “not to let Christian Hungary perish”.
In his speech in the presidential palace overlooking the River Danube, Francis quoted St Stephen, the 11th century founder of Christian Hungary.
“Those who profess themselves Christian, in the company of the witnesses of faith, are called to bear witness to and to join forces with everyone in cultivating a humanism inspired by the Gospel and moving along two fundamental tracks: acknowledging ourselves to be beloved children of the Father and loving one another as brothers and sisters,” Francis said.
“In this regard, Saint Stephen bequeathed to his son extraordinary words of fraternity when he told him that those who arrive with different languages and customs ‘adorn the country,’”, Francis said, quoting the saint’s command to ‘welcome strangers with benevolence and to hold them in esteem’.
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