BUDAPEST: Pope Francis thanked Hungarians on Saturday for welcoming Ukrainian refugees and urged them to help anyone in need, as he begged for a culture of charity in a country where the prime minister has justified firm anti-immigration policies with fears that migration threatens Europe’s Christian culture.
On the second day of a visit to Hungary, Francis met with refugees and poor people at St. Elizabeth’s church — named for a Hungarian princess who renounced her wealth to dedicate herself to the poor as a follower of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
The refugees included some who had fled to Hungary from neighbouring Ukraine, seeking safety from Russia’s war.
Immediately after, Francis met with the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion. The Vatican said the 20-minute meeting at the Holy See’s embassy in Budapest was “cordial.”
The Russian church’s support for the Kremlin’s war has prevented a papal meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Francis and Kirill had a 2016 encounter in Cuba that marked the first between a pope and an Eastern Orthodox leader in centuries.
Speaking in the white-brick St. Elizabeth’s church in Budapest, Francis recalled that the Gospel instructs Christians to show love and compassion to all, especially those experiencing poverty and pain and “even those who are not believers.”
“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,” he said.
Hungary’s nationalist government has implemented firm anti-immigration policies and refused to accept many asylum-seekers trying to enter the country through its southern border, leading to prolonged legal disputes with the European Union.
The conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has said that migration threatens to replace Europe’s Christian culture. Orban, who has held office since 2010, has hinged multiple election campaigns on the threats he alleges migrants and refugees pose to Hungarians.
While Orban’s government has consistently rejected asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa, some 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing war in their country found open doors. Around 35,000 of the refugees remain in Hungary and have registered for temporary protection there, according to the UN.
Yet monetary assistance for the Ukrainian refugees has been meagre. Fewer Ukrainians have opted to stay in Hungary than any other country in Eastern Europe except Belarus, ception of Belarus.
One who has chosen to stay was Olesia Misiats, a nurse who worked in a Kyiv COVID-19 hospital when she fled with her mother and two daughters Feb. 24 of last year. First she went to the Netherlands, but high costs compelled her to move to Hungary, where she said she has found an apartment and given birth to her third daughter, Mila, who was in the pews on Saturday with her mother and sister.
‘I want to go back home’
“Here it’s safe,” Misiats said of her new life. She said she hopes one day to return to Kyiv, but for now she and her children are adapting. “I want to go back home. There it’s my life, it was my life,” she said. “But the war changed my life.”
There were conspicuously few people of color in the pews. Among them was artist and filmmaker Abouzar Soltani, a refugee from Iran who spent 553 days in one of Hungary’s transit zones with his 10-year-old son, Armin, after Hungarian authorities rejected their asylum claims in 2018.
Soltani later said of their 18 months staying in container shelters that they felt like “fish in an aquarium.” When a European court decision closed the transit zones, Soltani opted to remain in Hungary, where he still lives.
Francis praised the Hungary’s Catholic Church for providing aid to people fleeing war and urged continued charity toward any who need help. He heard from a members of a Ukrainian family who fled war, traveling for days to reach Hungary after missiles rained down on their hometown of Dnipro, in May of last year.
Oleg Yakovlev said he decided to bring his wife and five children to Hungary because he had worked here as a cook years ago and remembered he being welcomed.
“For us and our children, Hungary has been the start of a new life, of a new possibility,” Yakovlev told Francis as his two eldest children played an Argentine tango on the accordion and saxophone for the Argentine pope. “Here we were welcomed, and we found a new home.”
At the end of the event, a band of Hungarian Roma musicians serenaded the pontiff, drawing a standing ovation and cheers from the crowd and a thumbs up from Francis.
Francis started his Saturday visiting with children who have visual and physical disabilities. In the afternoon, he has his first big public event in Hungary, a youth rally at the city’s sports stadium.
He plans to wrap up his visit with an open-air Mass on Sunday and speech at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest.
Upon arriving in Hungary on Friday, Francis urged Europe to find again its founding values of peaceful unity as he denounced the “adolescent belligerence” of Russia’s war in Ukraine.