Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is seeking to exploit Pope Francis' second visit to Hungary in two years, despite clear political differences between the two leaders, local analysts noted ahead of the Pontiff's three-day visit to Budapest between April 28-30.
Many Catholics felt disillusioned after the Pope spent a mere 5–6 hours in Budapest in September 2021 to celebrate the closing mass of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress before embarking on a three-day visit to Slovakia. At that time, it looked like the head of the Catholic Church was snubbing Hungary's radical rightwing prime minister, which pundits attributed to the Hungarian PM's relentless, xenophobic campaign against migrants. Pope Francis has often spoken of the need to integrate migrants, while condemning racism and populism.
Now the Hungarian prime minister, who has become increasingly isolated in the international arena, appears primed to turn the Pope's visit to his own political purposes. The dominant pro-government media is all revved up by the visit, interpreted as a major diplomatic success of the government and a confirmation of some of his policies.
Hungary's strongman has long tried to portray himself as the defender of Christian and traditional family values, while depicting Western Europe as a region that has abandoned its cultural roots, building multicultural societies while promoting sexual deviance by allowing same-sex marriage.
Many of the speeches by Hungary's populist leader bear a resemblance to the Russian narrative on the failure of the West. It is probably no coincidence that over the last 12 years Orban's core fans have become hostile toward Hungary's Western allies while embracing the views of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, who has also tried to identify himself with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Orban claims he has demonstrated his affiliation with Christian values by staunchly opposing LGBTQ ideology and promoting instead a natalist "family policy". Hungary has also provided humanitarian assistance to persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East and Africa.
Orban has also claimed that Hungary and the Vatican are on the same page as regards the war in Ukraine. Both have called for a ceasefire and negotiations to end the war, regardless of the continued occupation of much of Ukraine by Russia.
Laszlo Bartus, editor-in-chief of US-based online site Amerikai Nepszava, an ardent critic of Orban, argues that the government and its media have set up a trap for Pope Francis and claims that the visit will be used to legitimise the regime, which persecutes refugees and gays, the opposite of what the Pope preaches.
"Pope Francis and Viktor Orban's views differ sharply on a number of important issues, including migration, acceptance of homosexuality and inclusion, and that is why the visit will be a political boon for the prime minister", he added.
Timed before the visit, a Hungarian Christian website began to disseminate half a dozen, less-known quotes from Pope Francis that either contradicts the ideology of the Orban regime or criticise its operation. Francis' words warning against the rise of populism and the use of fake news and media manipulation appeared on internet sites and billboards, as well as his sympathy for victims of the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Orban has consistently failed to condemn Russia's aggression.
Hungarian religious leaders and pro-government media are now conveying the message that Pope Francis has been misled about Hungary, and he is in a way "clearing a debt" with the visit.
"The Pope has realised that in many respects he has been misled about Hungary, and now he is returning to visit the Christians and Catholics of Hungary, said bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, who is seen as one of the staunchest supporters of Orban's hard-line policies, including cracking down on the LGBTQ community and the barbed-wire fences against refugees on the southern border.
Kiss-Rigo claims that Europe, which proudly claims to have the highest level of democracy, has paradoxically "turned their societies into an ideological dictatorship of nihilism", and this will clearly lead to "the abandonment of their identity, leading to self-destruction, social suicide".
Columnist and TV anchor Zsolt Bayer, a Fidesz co-founder, called on Orban supporters to take part in the closing mass on Kossuth square in a "peace march", a political rally to express support for the ruling regime. Bayer had previously called Francis "a senile old fool or a scoundrel" working with the Hungarian-born US financier George Soros to undermine Christian nations.
The papal visit to Budapest marks Pope Francis' 41st Apostolic Journey abroad and will follow a busy itinerary, the Holy See said in a press release earlier.
Just hours after landing in Budapest, the Holy Father will pay a courtesy visit to President Katalin Novak and a 25-minute meeting is scheduled with Orban.
In the three days, the pope will meet with religious leaders, representatives of the academic and cultural world, and refugees. He is set to address young people at a Budapest arena on Saturday. On his final day, he will preside over a Sunday Mass on Hungary's landmark Kossuth square, in front of Parliament, to an estimated hundred of thousands of faithful.
The Hungarian Catholic Church, the largest church in the country, represents 37% of Hungarians, while Lutherans or Calvinists made up 13%, the Protestant branch with which Orban is affiliated.