Pope Francis has visited Hungary at the beginning of his first major foreign outing since his surgery in the summer, where he met the right-wing leader Viktor Orban.
The pontiff, who underwent an intestinal procedure in July, said mass in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square to mark the end of a major Catholic conference taking place in the city – urging congregants to open their arms to everyone, in an apparent veiled criticism of Mr Orban’s migration policies.
He also met Hungarian religious figures and the country’s political leaders during a brief stopover ahead of his main four-day sojourn in Slovakia.
The Vatican and trip organisers have stressed that Francis had only been invited to Hungary to celebrate the mass, not make a proper state and pastoral visit as he is doing in Slovakia, and so the brevity of his visit should not be seen as a snub.
However, he and Mr Orban disagree on a host of issues including migration, and Francis’s limited time in Budapest may indicate he did not want to give Mr Orban’s government the political boost of hosting him for a longer pilgrimage before next year’s general election.
Reverend Kornel Fabry, secretary general of the conference being held in Budapest, noted that a majority of Hungarians backed Mr Orban’s migration policies “that we shouldn’t bring the trouble into Europe but should help out where the trouble is”.
Mr Orban has frequently depicted his government as a defender of Christian civilisation in Europe and a bulwark against migration from Muslim-majority countries. Francis has expressed solidarity with migrants and refugees and criticised what he called “national populism” advanced by governments like Hungary’s.
Mr Orban’s government has also passed a law that prohibits the depiction of homosexuality in education settings. Francis has previously indicated he is accepting of homosexuality on an individual level.
During his mass on Sunday, Francis told Hungarians: “Religious sentiment has been the lifeblood of this nation, so attached to its roots. Yet the cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well rooted, it also raises and extends its arms toward everyone.”
Mr Orban and the pontiff held a “cordial” 40-minute meeting, according to the Vatican. While migration was not on the stated agenda, Mr Orban later wrote on Facebook: “I asked Pope Francis not to let Christian Hungary perish.”
About 39 per cent of Hungarians declared themselves to be Roman Catholic in a 2011 census, while 13 per cent declared themselves to be Protestant, either Lutheran or Calvinist, a Protestant branch with which Mr Orban is affiliated.
Additional reporting by Associated Press